On Verge of Collapse, Giants Grab Division Lead With a Leaping Catch


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Tight end Larry Donnell making the game-winning reception with 21 seconds to play as the 49ers’ NaVorro Bowman and Antoine Bethea defended.

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Robert Deutsch/USA Today Sports, via Reuters

EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. — Eli Manning had engineered dozens of come-from-behind touchdown drives late in games, including two that had won Super Bowls. But on Sunday night against the San Francisco 49ers, as he entered the huddle with the Giants trailing by 4 points with 105 seconds remaining, Manning looked around and saw that he was missing his top three wide receivers.

Odell Beckham Jr., who had played spectacularly, was nursing a sore hamstring. Rueben Randle, the team’s second receiver, was also sidelined with a leg injury. Victor Cruz, Manning’s most reliable outlet in this kind of situation, was not even in uniform.

The Giants had led the 49ers only a few minutes earlier. Indeed, the Giants had led for most of the game, with Manning on his way to a career high in completions. But to avoid a third fourth-quarter collapse by the Giants in five games this season, Manning would have to lead the team 82 yards to a touchdown.

And for the time being, his receivers were Geremy Davis, Dwayne Harris and Myles White, who had been put on the roster just last week.

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But in one of the best regular-season last-minute performances of his career — and aided by a late-game appearance by Beckham — Manning got the most out of his supporting cast. With 21 seconds left, Manning fired a precise throw to the back of the end zone, over two San Francisco defenders, and the 6-foot-6 tight end Larry Donnell leapt to snag it for a 12-yard touchdown that gave the Giants an implausible 30-27 victory.

“It was a good night, one of the better ones, I guess,” said Manning, who completed 41 of 54 passes for 441 yards and three touchdowns.

With a characteristically sheepish expression, he added: “It was fun. A lot of fun.”

Donnell, whose soaring catch was a remarkable athletic feat as well, said: “That’s the way that play is designed — throw it high, and I’ll go up and get it. Once I got my hands on it, I was holding on. We needed to win that game.”

The victory was the third in a row for the Giants (3-2), who are now alone in first place in the N.F.C. East.

That outcome did not seem possible in the closing minutes of Sunday’s game. Manning even appeared to throw an interception in the final minute that would have clinched an upset victory for the 49ers (1-4), but the call was reversed after a video review.

The pivotal closing sequences began with the Giants taking a 23-20 lead with 4 minutes 29 seconds left.

At that point, it was up to the Giants’ defense to protect the lead. But the defense was undermanned, having lost middle linebacker Jon Beason to a concussion in the opening moments of the game.

Taking over at the 20-yard line, quarterback Colin Kaepernick, who competed 23 of 35 passes for 262 yards, quickly led the 49ers downfield. Consecutive long completions to wide receivers Torrey Smith and Anquan Boldin set up a 2-yard touchdown run by Carlos Hyde that gave the 49ers a 27-23 lead.

The Giants took over at their 18-yard line. Vereen caught two passes for 27 yards, and Manning scrambled for 11. But then an underthrown Manning pass was grabbed by 49ers cornerback Tramaine Brock. The play was ruled an interception.

Manning walked dejectedly off the field, and the officials went to check the replay. Then Beckham, who had been out of the game since catching a third-quarter touchdown pass, started lobbying in earnest to return.

Giants Coach Tom Coughlin later conceded that he was reluctant to put Beckham, his star, back into the game.

“Sure I was, but we were trying to win a game,” Coughlin said. “He wanted to go. The medical people said, ‘Let him go.’ I let him go.”

After the officials reversed the call, Manning returned to the field with a new hop in his step. Vereen caught a pass over the middle and turned it into a 24-yard gain with some nifty moves. Then Beckham, whose presence caused the 49ers’ secondary to back off the line of scrimmage, drew a pass-interference penalty that put the ball at the San Francisco 12.

Now anything seemed possible, and soon Manning found Donnell in the back of the end zone.

“Eli is amazing,” Giants cornerback Prince Amukamara said. “You just watch from the sideline, and you think that he’s done this so many times. We haven’t been as good a fourth-quarter team as much lately. But this is what we expect of him and ourselves.”

Manning was almost giddy leaving the locker room. It has been three seasons since the Giants were in the playoffs, and they have had many late-game disappointments. To Manning, it felt good to have something end well for a change.

“We’ve had to fight through some things, and to have a 3-2 record after starting the season 0-2, it just gives everyone in our locker room a lift,” Manning said. “I’m proud of all of us.”

After leading by 7 points at halftime, the Giants stumbled at the start of the third quarter, allowing San Francisco back into a game they had been largely controlling. Kaepernick quickly led the 49ers on a 10-play, 88-yard drive that tied the game, 13-13.

The Giants answered with a quick scoring drive that featured running plays and short passes. On a third down from the 49ers’ 17, Manning dropped behind the line and waited for a receiver to come open. With a defender draped on his shoulders, Manning fired a crisp pass over the middle to Beckham, who caught the ball in front of cornerback Kenneth Acker.

Beckham made a quick fake and then sprinted toward the sideline, outrunning his pursuers for a touchdown that gave the Giants a 20-13 lead with less than two minutes remaining in the third quarter.

After the play, Beckham danced alongside the end zone in celebration but then went to an athletic trainer on the sideline.

The 49ers again tied the game on a 5-yard touchdown pass from Kaepernick to tight end Garrett Celek.

The Giants had several efficient drives in the first half and threatened deep in 49ers territory, but they failed to capitalize with touchdowns on most of those possessions, and that nearly came back to haunt them.

“I’m just happy we were able to finish the game in a positive fashion,” Coughlin said. “I knew we were capable of it. But it was good to see it.”



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