Jan. 2 (Bloomberg) -- New York Giants defensive end Justin Tuck said he heard the word “finish” over 100 times on the sidelines last night as his team beat the Dallas Cowboys 31-14 to clinch the National Football League’s final playoff berth.
The Giants led 21-0 at halftime before giving up two touchdowns. Victor Cruz -- who caught six passes for 178 yards including a 74-yard touchdown for the first score -- then hauled in a 44-yard catch on a third down play that led to a field goal and the restoration of New York’s 10-point advantage with six minutes to play.
“Getting that drive where Victor made that play and got the field goal, it seemed like momentum started changing,” Tuck told reporters. “That’s when you started hearing the word ‘finish.’”
Many among last night’s season-high Giants’ crowd of 81,077 at MetLife Stadium in East Rutherford, New Jersey, waved white rally towels that read “All In,” which has become a team mantra along with “finish.”
“We’re ‘All In,’” Tuck said. “I love that phrase because that’s how this team has played the last two weeks.”
The Giants and Cowboys entered the game tied atop the National Football Conference East division, with each needing a win to prolong their season.
The Giants had struggled down the stretch in recent seasons, losing two of their final three games to miss the playoffs last year with a 10-6 record and going 1-3 in 2009 to also miss out on the postseason.
‘We Got it Done’
“We’ve done great in the fourth quarter and we finished the season strong,” Giants quarterback Eli Manning said. “We needed two wins to make the playoffs. We knew what we had to do and we got it done.”
After losing four straight games through Dec. 4, the Giants won three of their final four games to close the regular season. The run included two wins over the Cowboys and a 29-14 victory on Dec. 24 against the New York Jets.
“We had a lot of ups and downs throughout the season and when our team needed it the most we responded,” Cruz, 25, said. “We were able to keep a level head throughout a four-game skid and found a way to keep our composure.”
The Giants (9-7) host the Atlanta Falcons in the first round of the playoffs Jan. 8.
Manning threw for 346 yards and three touchdowns last night, including a 4-yard touchdown pass to Hakeem Nicks with four minutes remaining to secure a 17-point victory, New York’s biggest of the season.
It was Manning’s 15th fourth-quarter touchdown pass this season, breaking a record held by Johnny Unitas and Eli’s brother Peyton.
New York’s 30-year-old quarterback completed 24 of 33 passes to eight different receivers and finished without an interception for the first time in nine games.
“We’re playing smart football,” Manning said. “We’re not making many mistakes and we have the big play potential.”
Cruz’s 74-yard touchdown catch was the team’s 17th pass play of 40 or more yards this season, the most in the NFL. An undrafted second-year receiver, Cruz finished the regular season with 1,536 receiving yards, second only to Calvin Johnson of the Detroit Lions in the NFC.
Manning threw for a franchise-record 4,933 yards this year, trailing Drew Brees of the New Orleans Saints, Tom Brady of the New England Patriots and Aaron Rodgers of the Green Bay Packers. Nicks and Cruz are the first pair of Giants wideouts to top 1,000 yards receiving in the same season.
The Giants last won a playoff game during the 2007 season, when they made the playoffs as a wild card and beat the 16-0 New England Patriots in the Super Bowl.
Running back Brandon Jacobs, who led the 2007 Giants in rushing, said he sees similarities between this year’s team and the Super Bowl-winning roster.
“It’s the same kind of feeling,” Jacobs said in an interview. “I wouldn’t want to face the New York Giants in the playoffs right now.”
To contact the reporters on this story: Eben Novy-Williams at MetLife Stadium at firstname.lastname@example.org
To contact the editor responsible for this story: Michael Sillup at email@example.com