With a big helping hand to Hakeem Nicks, who scored two touchdowns, and his defense, which forced four turnovers and smothered presumptive league MVP Aaron Rodgers and his receivers.
The New York Giants stunned the defending Super Bowl-champion Green Bay Packers 37-20 at Lambeau Field on Sunday evening. The game's defining play came on the final play of the second half, when Manning threw a 37-yard touchdown pass to Nicks on Hail Mary.
San Francisco will host the Giants for the NFC Championship next Sunday, with kickoff scheduled for 6:30 p.m. (ET). New York, using much the same formula it used to beat the Packers 23-20 in overtime in the championship game here four years ago, became the first road team to win in these playoffs and snapped Green Bay's 13-game home winning streak.
"Everybody wrote us off," said Giants defensive end Osi Umenyiora. "They always do that. So, we're just going to keep on fighting and keep on playing hard and hopefully we'll keep things going.
Leading 13-10, the Giants took the ball at their 31 with 41 seconds to go, seemingly intent to go into halftime with their three-point lead. But on third-and-1 with 11 seconds remaining, Ahmad Bradshaw took a handoff to the left, cut back across the field, took advantage of a bad angle by safety Charlie Peprah and gained 23 yards. With 6 seconds to go, Manning heaved the ball to Nicks, who caught the ball between Peprah and Charles Woodson for a shocking touchdown that made it 20-10 at halftime.
"I was the jump man," Nicks said. "I got down there and I didn't even see who was around me. All I saw was the ball, and once I saw the ball, I had to jump and get it. I don't even know where I landed in the end zone. Once I went up and got it, I looked around and it was exciting."
"The defensive call was the right call," McCarthy said. "The alignment shows you what was getting ready to occur. It's about making plays. It's about big-play opportunities in big games. That was a big play, obviously, for the Giants. It was a 10-point game at halftime and we had the ball coming out. It was a big momentum play for them but we were not deflated as a football team."
The Giants extended their lead to 23-13 midway through the fourth quarter, then put the game away when Ryan Grant fought for extra yardage on a checkdown pass and fumbled on a hit by safety Kenny Phillips. Chase Blackburn recovered and returned the ball 40 yards to the Packers' 4. Manning hit Mario Manningham for the touchdown on the next play.
"We just turned the ball over too many times to win," Rodgers said. "You've got to give them credit. They played well on defense. They had a good plan, but we had a lot of chances to execute and didn't do it. (We) put our defense in a tough spot and that's why our season's over."
Rodgers hit Donald Driver for a touchdown to make it 30-20 with 4:46 remaining but the Giants' Victor Cruz recovered the onside kick. The Giants finished the job on third-and-11. Green Bay's four-man rush got nowhere close to Manning, who calmly sat in the pocket and hit Cruz for 17 yards. A 24-yard run by Bradshaw set up Brandon Jacobs' 14-yard touchdown with 2:36 to go.
Manning completed 21-of-33 passes for 330 yards, with three touchdowns and an interception. Rodgers was 26-of-46 for 264 yards, with two touchdowns and one interception. Illustrative of the game, Rodgers, whose 9.25 yards per attempt for the season was one of the best marks in NFL history, completed more passes for fewer yards than Manning.
"Guys understand the way to win football games against good teams," Manning said. "Our defense is playing great with pressure and turnovers. Our offense for the most part is protecting the ball and playing smart football. When we have a chance to make a big play, we are making them."
The Packers' offense, which led the league in scoring, looked out of sorts from the get-go coming off of their bye. A Giants defense that dropped Rodgers four times had a hand in it, but the Packers were guilty of six drops – including one in the end zone that could have cut the deficit to 20-17 with 4 minutes to go in the third quarter.
After the Giants took a 3-0 lead on a 13-play drive to start the game, Randall Cobb fumbled the ensuing return. McCarthy won a replay challenge, a decision that ultimately should have resulted in a touchdown, but Rodgers missed a wide-open Jennings on third-and-8 from the 29, and Green Bay had to settle for a field goal.
New York answered with a 66-yard touchdown pass to Nicks, who bounced off Peprah's shoulder-block attempt of a tackle near midfield and ran untouched to make it 10-3. The Packers responded, with Rodgers hitting John Kuhn for a 9-yard touchdown on the first play of the second quarter. However, a few plays earlier, it appeared Jennings had lost a fumble. The call was overruled on the field, with Jennings ruled down by contact, and the Giants lost a replay challenge.
After the Giants' Derrick Martin – a former Packer – recovered a surprise onside kick, the Packers' defense held and Brad Jones blocked a field-goal attempt. The Packers' next drive crossed midfield but died with back-to-back drops by James Starks and Tom Crabtree.
The teams then traded turnovers – Manning was picked off by Morgan Burnett after getting drilled by Desmond Bishop and Kuhn fumbled. New York settled for a field goal and a 13-10 lead after getting a second-and-goal at the 1. Bishop dropped Brandon Jacobs for a loss of 4 on second down and Manning's pass to tight end Jake Ballard on third down was deflected by Burnett. The Hail Mary made it 20-10.
Rodgers converted two third downs to start the third quarter but, with the ball on New York's 30, he was stripped by Osi Umenyiora, with Antrel Rolle getting his second recovery of the game. On the play, Jennings had torched Aaron Ross with a double-move and was running free up the left sideline for what would have been an easy touchdown.
"They weren't on their game but that's not my fault," Giants defensive end Jason Pierre-Paul said. "We knew what we had to do and we came in and played some great football."
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Bill Huber is publisher of Packer Report magazine and PackerReport.com and has written for Packer Report since 1997. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org, or leave him a question in Packer Report's subscribers-only Packers Pro Club forum. Find Bill on Twitter at twitter.com/PackerReport.