Trailing 27-17, the Giants had finally stopped New Orleans inches shy of the goal line, and an unsportsmanlike conduct call on the play pushed the ball out to the 16.
A Manning pass to Mario Manningham got it out to the 34, and with 27 seconds left there was time to at least get within field-goal range, or maybe even score a touchdown, getting a game that appeared to be getting out of reach to a surprising one-possession margin with the Giants getting the ball to start the third quarter.
It was not to be.
Saints safety Roman Harper blindsided Manning, who fumbled; Scott Shanle picked up the ball at the 19 and carried it to the 7.
Two plays later, Reggie Bush scored, and it was 34-17.
"That was really tough," Manning said. "We'd made a great stop and we get pretty good field position.
"We're thinking, maybe go down, get some points and we're still very much in the game. But I made a costly mistake. I needed to take care of the ball there, and I didn't."
So it went for Manning.
He didn't have a horrendous day – 14-31 for 178 yards.
But on a day when the Saints were taking target practice on the Giants defense – 493 yards and the most points allowed by the G-Men in more than a decade – much more was needed.
"We didn't always give Eli the protection he needed," Giants Coach Tom Coughlin said. "There were some times when he was running free that he was able to make things happen, but we didn't have enough of them."
Manning was playing for the first time in the Superdome where his father, Archie, quarterbacked the then-hapless Saints through the 1970s and early ‘80s.
While naturally excited about the opportunity, he said he felt no more pressure than normal.
"Obviously, I wanted to do well,' he said. "But I don't think it affected my level of play today. I was just trying to do my job, and too much of the time, I didn't."
Manning's only interception came in the third quarter with the score still 34-17, but with the Giants in position to make things interesting after driving to a first down at the New Orleans 40.
But under pressure from another blitz by Harper, Manning threw off-target deep downfield for Hakeem Nicks and Jabari Greer intercepted for the Saints.
New Orleans drove from there for yet another TD to put the game out of reach.
"We're still in the game," said Manning, who chewed out Ahmad Bradshaw for failing to pick up Harper. "And I'm trying to make a play there. The blitz was coming at me, but it was still a poor throw on my part."
Manning did have one highlight moment, although it didn't count.
Early in the fourth quarter, after a 58-yard completion to Nicks that was his longest of the season, on a fourth down play from the 10 Manning turned in an elongated Archie-esque scramble that ended with him somehow finding Brandon Jacobs in a crowded end zone.
But the play was nullified by a holding call and the Giants settled for a field goal.
Two possessions later, David Carr finished things out for the Giants.
"This was a disappointing day for everyone," said Manning, who joined his father and mom Olivia, outside the locker room after the game. "We came in undefeated and wanted to stay that way.
"But the Saints had two weeks to prepare for us, they put together a great game plan on both sides of the ball and we didn't respond when we had our opportunities. Hopefully we'll get another shot at ‘em."
Giants D carved up
The Giants came into Sunday sporting the No. 1 defense in the NFL.
It's highly doubtful that they'll still hold that distinction when they host Arizona Sunday night at Giants Stadium.
Drew Brees and the New Orleans Saints shredded the Giants' secondary for 369 yards and four touchdowns in a 48-27 beating that marked the most points New York had given up in more than a decade.
"Nobody played well," cornerback Terrell Thomas said. "It's very humbling."
The Saints drove for touchdowns on their first four possessions before being stopped so close to the goal line that that it took a replay review to determine if ball carrier Pierre Thomas had crossed the plane.
He hadn't, but two plays later, Eli Manning fumbled when sacked and the Saints recovered at the Giants 7-yard line.
After a rare Brees incompletion (he was 17-20 in the first half, completing 15 straight in one stretch), Reggie Bush ran it to make it 34-17 at halftime.
The Giants never got any closer in the final two quarters.
"I know if I were on Brees' team, I'd enjoy being one of his receivers," safety Michael Johnson said. "They really know how to throw and catch it with each other. They make a lot of big plays, which turn into a lot of yards, which turn into a lot of points."
Cornerback Corey Webster, whose last game in the Superdome was when he was part of LSU's winning effort against Oklahoma in the Sugar Bowl for the 2004 BCS championship, and strong safety C.C. Brown were the biggest victims of Brees' accuracy and his receivers' playmaking ability.
On the Saints' first possession, both Webster and Brown appeared to get a finger on the ball, which Lance Moore somehow caught for an 18-yard gain on third-and-eight from the Giants 43.
On a deep pass from midfield in the second quarter, Webster got his feet tangled with Marques Colston, resulting in a 35-yard penalty that set up a Brees-to-Moore TD pass in which Moore went past Brown.
And on it went.
Webster left the Giants' locker room without speaking to reporters, but Brown faced the music.
"He (Brees) was making good reads all day," Brown said. "We couldn't do anything right. We thought we'd had a good week of preparation. Obviously, it wasn't good enough."
Many happy returns
On a day of few bright spots for the Giants, the team did get a lift from the return of Domenik Hixon to those duties for the first time this season.
Hixon, who'd been sidelined with a knee injury, had more opportunities than he would like – seven – but averaged 32.9 yards, including returns of 45 and 68 yards in the first half that gave the Giants good field position that they turned into 10 points.
On the second, Hixon, who also had punt returns of 24 and 27 yards, was brought down by Saints kicker Thomas Morestead.
"It's a blessing to be back on the field," Hixon said. "But I hate it when the kicker tackles me. It's my job to make him miss. I apologized to the rest of the return team for that."
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