25 Best Games of the 2011 NFL Season

Mike Batista@Steel_TweetsContributor IJanuary 6, 2012

25 Best Games of the 2011 NFL Season

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    If the 2011 NFL regular season is any indication, the playoffs should be memorable.

    All 12 NFL playoff teams played in at least one of the best 25 games of the 2011 NFL season.

    The countdown includes a game won dramatically by a New York team on the 10th anniversary of Sept. 11, a few high-scoring air shows won by the defending Super Bowl champions and maybe, just maybe, a few Tim Tebow games.

    So before Wild Card Weekend kicks off Saturday in Houston, let's take a look back at the best 25 games of the 2011 regular season.

No. 25: Bengals 23, Cardinals 16

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    Week 16, at Cincinnati

    The NFL's play of the year got this game into the countdown.

    The Bengals' Jerome Simpson caught a pass from Andy Dalton, somersaulted over the Cardinals' Daryl Washington and landed on his feet in the end zone to give the Bengals a 17-0 lead in the second quarter.

    Other than that play, there didn't seem to be anything special about this game. The Bengals led 23-0 in the fourth quarter.

    But the Cardinals had a knack for comebacks in 2011, and they almost had another one in this game.

    John Skelton threw a 30-yard touchdown pass to Larry Fitzgerald to get the Cardinals on the board with 11:34 left in the game. Beanie Wells kept the drive alive with a three-yard run on 4th-and-2.

    The Cardinals recovered a fumble on the next drive, leading to Jeff King's two-yard touchdown catch to make it 23-13.

    Arizona had to settle for a 29-yard Jay Feely field goal with 3:20 left. But on the first play of the Bengals' ensuing possession, Kerry Rhodes recovered his second fumble of the fourth quarter and the Cardinals were in business at the Bengals' 22.

    The Cardinals' playoff hopes were dashed, however, when on fourth down Early Doucet fell down on what would have been an easy touchdown catch.

    The Bengals improved to 9-6 with a crucial win that led to a wild-card berth.

No. 24: Cowboys 27, 49ers 24, OT

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    Week 2, at San Francisco

    Tony Romo proved his doubters wrong.

    For a week, anyway.

    One week after the Cowboys blew a 14-point, fourth-quarter lead to the Jets in the season opener, Romo came back from a fractured rib to rally the Cowboys from a 24-14 deficit with seven minutes left in the game.

    The Cowboys fell behind 14-0 in the first half before Romo left the game at halftime. Jon Kitna threw a five-yard touchdown pass to Miles Austin to tie the game in the third quarter, and in the fourth quarter Austin caught a 25-yard TD pass from Romo to narrow the 49ers' lead to 24-21.

    Dan Bailey kicked a 48-yard field goal as time expired to send the game into overtime. Romo's 77-yard pass to Jesse Holly set up Bailey's 19-yard field goal in OT.

No. 23: Packers 45, Chargers 38

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    Week 9, at San Diego

    The Packers were rolling and the Chargers were slumping.

    Still, the Chargers gave the defending Super Bowl champions all they could handle.

    Green Bay jumped out to a 21-7 lead by returning two Philip Rivers interceptions for touchdowns on back-to-back possessions in the first quarter.

    Aaron Rodgers threw four touchdown passes and the Packers seemed in control with a 45-24 lead in the fourth quarter. But a five-yard touchdown pass from Rivers to Vincent Jackson, a recovered onside kick and a 29-yard TD pass to Jackson pulled the Chargers to within 45-38 with 6:25 to go.

    The Chargers had one last chance to tie it in the final minute, reaching the Packers' 41. But Rivers threw his third interception of the day and his 14th of the season.

    The Packers improved to 8-0. The Chargers lost the third of six straight that would cost them a playoff berth.

No. 22: Lions 49, Panthers 35

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    Week 11, at Detroit

    It's been an exciting season in Detroit. Get used to seeing Lions comeback victories in this countdown.

    The Lions were down 24-7 in the second quarter and recovered to take a 35-27 lead with eight minutes left in the game.

    Cam Newton answered with a six-yard touchdown run, and a two-point conversion pass to Steve Smith, to tie the game with five minutes to go.

    Matthew Stafford then drove the Lions 80 yards. Calvin Johnson sparked the drive with a leaping, 30-yard catch to get the ball to midfield. The deciding touchdown came when Stafford hit Brandon Pettigrew for a seven-yard pass with 2:32 left.

    Chris Harris snuffed out any Panthers comeback hopes by intercepting Newton on the first play of their ensuing possession, and the Lions eventually scored an insurance touchdown.

    The Lions improved to 7-3 with the victory, the only win during a stretch in which they lost three out of four.

No. 21: Broncos 35, Vikings 32

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    Week 13, at Minnesota

    You can't talk about the best games of the 2011 NFL season without mentioning Tim Tebow.

    Twice in the third quarter, Tebow threw to Demaryius Thomas to bring the Broncos to within a point.

    The Vikings restored their eight-point cushion with just under 10 minutes left in the game, but the Broncos finally tied the game less than a minute later.

    Tebow threw a 42-yard pass to Thomas on the first play of the Broncos' ensuing possession. Willis McGahee followed that with a 24-yard touchdown run.

    This time, the Broncos went for two. Tebow—who else?—tied the game by running it in himself.

    The Broncos needed to come back one more time after Ryan Longwell made a 39-yard field goal with 3:10 left in the game.

    Matt Prater kicked a 46-yard field goal to tie the game with 1:38 left. The Vikings never had a chance to go ahead again. Andre' Goodman intercepted Christian Ponder and ran it back to the Vikings' 15.

    Prater's 23-yarder as the clock hit zero gave the Broncos their fifth straight victory as they improved to 7-5.

No. 20: Cowboys 20, Dolphins 19

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    Week 12, at Dallas

    Whenever these two teams meet on Thanksgiving, it always seems to be memorable.

    The Cowboys' Dan Bailey attempted a 28-yard field goal as time ran out. Either way, that kick would decide the game. Overtime wasn't happening with the Cowboys down two.

    Bailey made the field goal to give the Cowboys the victory in a game highlighted by three lead changes in the fourth quarter.

    Shayne Graham made a 23-yard field goal to give the Dolphins a 19-17 lead with 7:18 left.

    The Cowboys had to punt with just under five minutes left, but forced a three-and-out to set up the winning drive.

    It was the fourth straight win for the Cowboys, who improved to 7-4. The Cowboys collapsed after that, however, losing four of their last five and missing the playoffs.

No. 19: Seahawks 36, Giants 25

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    Week 5, at New York

    The Giants seemed poised for their second straight fourth-quarter comeback victory.

    After falling behind 29-25 with less than three minutes left, the Giants marched down the field and reached the Seahawks' 10 with 1:25 left. Victor Cruz highlighted the drive with a 41-yard circus catch that got the ball to the Seahawks' 24 just before the two-minute warning.

    Then, Brandon Browner intercepted an Eli Manning pass and took it 94 yards to the house to make it a two-score game.

    This game featured three lead changes in the fourth quarter. Lawrence Tynes kicked a 26-yard field goal to give the Giants a 25-22 lead with 4:58 remaining.

    The Seahawks responded when Charlie Whitehurst, replacing injured starter Tarvaris Jackson, threw a 27-yard touchdown pass to Doug Baldwin to provide the winning points in the Seahawks' upset victory.

No. 18: Giants 31, Cardinals 27

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    Week 4, at Arizona

    Eli Manning and the Giants added another pleasant memory at University of Phoenix Stadium, where they stunned the Patriots four years ago in Super Bowl XLII.

    Cardinals running back Beanie Wells scored on a two-yard touchdown run to give the Cardinals a 27-17 lead with 5:16 left in the game.

    The Giants then pulled to within 27-24 when Manning threw a two-yard touchdown pass to Jake Ballard with 3:44 left.

    Then the Cardinals went three-and-out, and the Giants had the go-ahead score less than a minute later. Manning threw a 29-yard TD pass to Hakeem Nicks.

    That play was preceded by a 19-yard pass to Victor Cruz in which he appeared to fumble, but by rule the Cardinals could not challenge the play.

    This late-game comeback spiced up by an element of controversy improved the Giants to 3-1.

No. 17: Packers 42, Saints 34

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    Week 1, at Green Bay

    The NFL couldn't have asked for a better season opener. A matchup between the league's last two Super Bowl champions lived up to its billing.

    Saints quarterback Drew Brees threw for 419 yards and Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers threw for just 312, but Rodgers got the win.

    The Packers jumped out to an early 14-0 lead and maintained the lead throughout the game. But they never could shake the Saints, not even after 60 minutes of football had been played.

    The Saints' Jimmy Graham caught a five-yard touchdown pass from Brees to narrow the Packers' lead to 42-34 with 2:15 left in the game.

    After forcing the Packers to punt, the Saints drove to the Packers' 9-yard line with three seconds left. Brees threw an incomplete pass to Darren Sproles.

    Game over, right?

    Not quite.

    The Packers were called for pass interference on the play. So the Saints had the ball at the 1 for an un-timed down. Mark Ingram fell short on a handoff, and the Packers won the first of 13 straight to start the season.

No. 16: Packers 38, Giants 35

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    Week 13, at New York

    Eli Manning was up to the challenge, but 58 seconds was too much time for Aaron Rodgers.

    After the Packers increased their lead to 35-27 with 3:34 left in the game, Manning led the Giants on a nine-play, 69-yard drive capped by a two-yard touchdown pass to Hakeem Nicks and a two-point conversion run by D.J. Ware to tie the game.

    Rodgers needed just four plays to get to the Giants' 12 and set up Mason Crosby for the game-winning, 31-yard field goal as time expired.

    Trying to spoil the Packers' perfection, the Giants led 17-14 at one point in the first half, but the Packers took a 21-17 halftime lead on a Rodgers touchdown pass to Donald Driver and stretched the lead to 28-17 in the third quarter on a TD pass to Greg Jennings.

    The Giants weren't done, however. Manning threw a touchdown pass to Nicks in the third quarter and Lawrence Tynes pulled the Giants to within 28-27 with a 50-yard field goal in the fourth quarter.

    The Packers improved to 12-0, and the Giants lost their fourth in a row after a 6-2 start.

No. 15: Saints 40, Texans 33

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    Week 3, at New Orleans

    The Saints were involved in their second shootout in the first three weeks of the season and had their hands full with the emerging Texans.

    New Orleans needed 23 points in the fourth quarter to overcome two deficits and hand the Texans their first loss. Drew Brees threw touchdown passes to Jimmy Graham and Lance Moore to take a 32-26 lead.

    The ball seemed to be bouncing the Texans' way, however, when Saints linebacker Jonathan Casillas batted a Matt Schaub pass right into the hands of Kevin Walter, who ran it in for a 20-yard touchdown. That gave Houston a 33-32 lead with 4:21 left in the game.

    A penalty forced the Saints to start the ensuing drive on their own 7-yard line. But Brees led the Saints on an eight-play drive culminating in a 13-yard Mark Ingram touchdown run, the first career TD for the rookie running back.

    The two-point conversion gave the Saints a 40-33 lead with less than three minutes left, and the Saints held on to improve to 2-1.

No. 14: 49ers 25, Lions 19

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    Week 6, at Detroit

    This game is remembered more for the dust-up after the game between 49ers coach Jim Harbaugh and Lions coach Jim Schwartz.

    It overshadowed an entertaining game between the two most surprising teams in the NFC.

    Alex Smith fired a six-yard touchdown pass to Delanie Walker on fourth down with 1:51 left, giving the 49ers a 22-19 lead. San Francisco later added a field goal for the final points.

    The Lions, who entered the game unbeaten, took the lead early in the fourth quarter on a five-yard touchdown pass from Matthew Stafford to Nate Burleson. The play originally was ruled incomplete, but the Lions challenged and the call was reversed.

    Both teams went to 5-1, and both teams made the playoffs.

    A Schwartz-Harbaugh reunion, however, wouldn't happen before the NFC championship game. The Lions are the No. 6 seed and would face the top-seeded Packers if they upset New Orleans in their Wild Card Game.

No. 13: Bills 34, Patriots 31

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    Week 3, at Buffalo

    Well, the Bills seemed like a legitimate playoff contender at the time.

    Rian Lindell's 28-yard field goal as time expired gave the Bills the win as they erased a three-touchdown deficit for the second straight week and improved to 3-0.

    The Bills were down 21-0 in the second quarter against a team they hadn't beaten in 15 tries going back to the 2003 season opener.

    Patriots quarterback Tom Brady threw four interceptions for the first time since 2006. The fourth one bounced off the helmet of Bills defensive end Marcell Dareus and into the hands of Drayton Florence, who returned it 27 yards for the touchdown and a 31-24 Bills lead with just over 10 minutes left in the game.

    The Patriots responded with a 15-play, 71-yard drive and tied it with 3:25 left on a six-yard touchdown pass to Wes Welker.

    Bills quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick completed passes of 29, 12 and 38 yards to set up Lindell's winning field goal.

No. 12: Saints 26, Falcons 23, OT

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    Week 10, at Atlanta

    This one will be remembered for perhaps the most controversial coaching decision of the season.

    In overtime, Falcons coach Mike Smith decided to go for it on 4th-and-inches from the Falcons' 29. Michael Turner was denied, and John Kasay kicked a 26-yard field goal to win it.

    The Falcons came back from 10 down in the final five minutes to send the game to overtime. Matt Ryan threw a 20-yard touchdown pass to Tony Gonzalez and Matt Bryant kicked a 27-yard field goal as time ran out in regulation.

    It was the first of the Saints' two wins over the Falcons on their way to a 13-3 record and the NFC South title.

    The loss ended a three-game winning streak for the Falcons, who eventually finished 10-6 and earned a second straight playoff berth for the first time in franchise history.

No. 11: Jets 27, Cowboys 24

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    Week 1, at New York

    In the opening Sunday night game of the season, the Jets overcame a 24-10 deficit early in the fourth quarter, tying the game when Joe McKnight blocked a Mat McBriar punt and Isaiah Trufant ran it in for the touchdown with just over five minutes left.

    Former Cowboy Nick Folk victimized his old team by kicking a game-winning, 50-yard field goal with 27 seconds left. It was set up when Darrelle Revis intercepted a Tony Romo pass with 59 seconds left.

    On the 10th anniversary of Sept. 11, two teams with high hopes put on quite a show at MetLife Stadium.

    As spectacular as the night was, however, all it turned out to be was the first step to a .500 season for both teams.

No. 10: Ravens 23, Steelers 20

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    Week 9, at Pittsburgh

    The Ravens finally conquered the Steelers.

    For the regular season, anyway.

    Baltimore's comeback victory provided its first season sweep of Pittsburgh since 2006.

    Torrey Smith caught the game-winning touchdown pass from Joe Flacco with eight seconds left, redeeming himself for a dropped pass in the end zone 34 seconds earlier.

    The Ravens' 92-yard, 13-play drive included a fourth-down conversion at the Steelers' 49.

    The Steelers came back from a 16-6 deficit and went ahead 20-16 on a 25-yard touchdown pass from Ben Roethlisberger to Mike Wallace with 4:59 left.

    Pittsburgh then forced a three-and-out and advanced to the Ravens' 34. Instead of attempting a field goal on fourth down, the Steelers punted and had the Ravens pinned at their own 8 with 2:24 left.

    That was plenty of time for Flacco.

    The win came a week after a 21-point comeback victory over the Arizona Cardinals and improved the Ravens to 6-2 on their way to the AFC North title.

No. 9: Giants 37, Cowboys 34

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    Week 14, at Dallas

    The Giants overcame a 12-point deficit late in the fourth quarter to snap a four-game losing streak and seize control of the NFC East.

    It looked like the game was over when Tony Romo threw a 50-yard touchdown pass to Dez Bryant, increasing the Cowboys' lead to 34-22 with 5:52 to go.

    Eli Manning threw an eight-yard touchdown pass to Jake Ballard to slice the lead to 34-29 with 3:20 left.

    The Cowboys could have sealed it, but a wide-open Miles Austin dropped a Romo pass that almost certainly would have been a touchdown, and the Cowboys were forced to punt.

    With 51 seconds left, Brandon Jacobs scored from a yard out for the game's eighth and final lead change. D.J. Ware ran in the two-point conversion to give the Giants a three-point lead.

    Dan Bailey kicked a 47-yard field goal to tie it with six seconds left, but the Giants called timeout just before the kick. Bailey missed his second attempt, and the Giants suddenly were in first place in the NFC East with a 7-6 record.

    It was the second straight loss for the Cowboys.

    The NFC East ultimately was decided when the Giants beat the Cowboys again on the final night of the regular season.

No. 8: Broncos 18, Dolphins 15, OT

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    Week 7, at Miami

    This was Tim Tebow's coming-out party.

    In his first start of the season, Tebow led the Broncos back from a 15-0 deficit with two touchdowns in the final three minutes.

    After a five-yard touchdown pass to Demaryius Thomas made it 15-7 with 2:44 left, the Broncos recovered the onside kick.

    Tebow threw a three-yard TD pass to Daniel Fells with 25 seconds left, and took it in himself for the game-tying two-point conversion.

    Matt Prater's 52-yard field goal in overtime won it.

    The Broncos improved to 2-4, and Tebow-mania was born.

No. 7: Lions 34, Cowboys 30

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    Week 4, at Dallas

    The Lions roared back from a 27-3 deficit in the third quarter to improve to 4-0.

    Meanwhile, the Cowboys fell to 2-2, blowing double-digit second-half leads in both losses.

    Bobby Carpenter and Chris Houston got the Lions back into the game by returning Tony Romo interceptions for touchdowns in the third quarter, slicing the Cowboys' lead to 27-17.

    Lions quarterback Matthew Stafford narrowed the Cowboys' lead to 30-24 with a 23-yard touchdown pass to Calvin Johnson early in the fourth quarter.

    Jason Hanson cut the lead in half with a 51-yard field goal with less than five minutes left. Then, Romo's third interception led to the winning touchdown, a two-yard pass from Stafford to Johnson with 1:39 left in the game.

    The Lions overcame a 20-point deficit to win for the second straight week and eventually reached the playoffs for the first time since 1999.

No. 6: Texans 20, Bengals 19

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    Week 14, at Cincinnati

    Down to their third quarterback, the Texas came back from a 16-3 third-quarter deficit and scored the winning touchdown with two seconds left.

    Trailing 19-13, T.J. Yates and the Texans took over at their own 20 with 2:33 left in the game. Yates kept the drive going by scrambling 17 yards on 3rd-and-15 from the Bengals' 40.

    Then a pass interference penalty on 3rd-and-10 gave the Texans a first down at the 6 with 12 seconds to go. Two plays later, Yates found Kevin Walter for the touchdown to tie the game, and Neil Rackers' extra point made it 20-19.

    The win helped earn the Texans the first playoff berth in franchise history.

No. 5: Lions 28, Raiders 27

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    Week 15, at Oakland

    The Black Hole.

    A 13-point deficit midway through the fourth quarter.

    None of it fazed the Lions.

    Matthew Stafford led a 10-play drive that ended with a three-yard touchdown pass to Titus Young, making it 27-21 Oakland with 5:03 left. On the play before that, Stafford needed a five-yard scramble on 4th-and-2 to keep the drive alive.

    The Lions got the ball back, but were pinned on their own 2-yard line with 2:14 left.

    A 48-yard pass to Calvin Johnson got the ball to the Raiders' 13, and Johnson hauled in a six-yard TD pass to tie the game. Jason Hanson's extra point gave the Lions a 28-27 lead with 39 seconds left.

    The Raiders had one last gasp. Sebastian Janikowski attempted what would have been an NFL-record 65-yard field goal with four seconds left. But Ndamukong Suh blocked it, and the Lions improved to 9-5, one win from their first playoff berth since 1999.

No. 4: Broncos 13, Bears 10, OT

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    Week 14, at Denver

    Just when it seemed Tebow-mania couldn't get any better for Broncos fans, it did.

    This game followed the Tebow formula to a "T."

    Tebow completed just 3-of-16 passes in the first three quarters. The Broncos trailed 10-0 with 4:34 left, and with no timeouts remaining Tebow rattled off seven straight completions to pull the Broncos to within 10-7 with 2:15 to go.

    Denver got the ball back at its 20 with 56 seconds left and needed a 59-yard field goal by Matt Prater with two seconds left to force overtime.

    The Bears won the toss in overtime and got to the Broncos' 33 before Marion Barber fumbled.

    Elvis Dumervil recovered and the Bears didn't see the ball again. Prater kicked a 51-yard field goal to give the Broncos their sixth straight win and an 8-5 record.

    The Broncos lost three straight to end the regular season, but Tebow gave them enough of a midseason lift to carry them to the playoffs.

No. 3: Bills 38, Raiders 35

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    Week 2, at Buffalo

    Two teams whose seasons would end with a thud provided plenty of fireworks on a sunny September afternoon.

    The game featured five lead changes in the final 14:10, and three lead changes in the final five minutes. The deciding points came when Bills quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick found David Nelson for a six-yard touchdown pass on fourth down with 18 seconds left.

    The 14-play scoring drive answered a 50-yard TD pass from Jason Campbell to Denarius Moore that gave the Raiders a 35-31 edge with 3:50 left.

    The Raiders weren't done until Da'Norris Searcy intercepted Campbell's Hail Mary as time ran out.

    The Bills overcame a 21-3 halftime deficit to improve to 2-0.

No. 2: Packers 45, Lions 41

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    Week 17, at Green Bay

    This game featured 11 lead changes. The biggest lead either team had was in the first quarter, when the Lions led 9-0. The first lead change came when the Packers took a 10-9 lead in the quarter.

    After that, the teams traded scores for the rest of the game.

    The Packers already had clinched the No. 1 seed in the playoffs and didn't have much to play for. So they rested starting quarterback Aaron Rodgers, and all backup Matt Flynn did was set franchise records for passing yards (480) and touchdown passes (six) in a game.

    The Lions, on the other hand, had plenty to play for. With a victory, they could have earned a No. 5 playoff seed and snapped their road losing streak against the Packers, which was extended to 21 games with this loss.

    The quarterbacks combined for 1,000 passing yards, with the Lions' Matthew Stafford holding up his end of the bargain with 520 yards and five touchdown passes.

    The game's scoring finally ended with 1:13 left when Flynn hit Jermichael Finley for a four-yard touchdown.

    Sam Shields intercepted Stafford at the Packers' 22 to seal the victory for the Packers, who ended the regular season like they started it, by winning a high-scoring light show.

No. 1: Giants 24, Patriots 20

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    Week 9, at New England

    Eli Manning haunted the Patriots again.

    Four years after the Giants foiled the Patriots' perfection in Super Bowl XLII, they dealt the Patriots their second straight loss, a streak that turned out to be just a minor burp on the way to a 13-3 season.

    How good was this game? It was the most exciting of the season despite a scoreless first half and a mistake-filled third quarter.

    The Giants took a 10-0 lead off two Patriots turnovers in the third quarter. The Patriots responded with a field goal off a Giants turnover to make it 10-3.

    The Patriots turned it over for the third time in the quarter on a muffed punt, but got the ball back on a Kyle Arrington interception and tied it 10-10 early in the fourth quarter.

    The lead changed hands three times in the final 3:07. Manning threw a 10-yard touchdown pass to Mario Manningham to give the Giants a 17-13 lead.

    A 14-yard TD pass from Tom Brady to Rob Gronkowski on 4th-and-9 made it 20-17 with 100 seconds left.

    Then Manning took over. Jake Ballard caught a 28-yard pass on 3rd-and-10 during the game-winning drive. After a pass interference penalty gave the Giants the ball at the 1, Manning again found Ballard on third down for the game-winning TD with 15 seconds left.

    The Giants ended Brady's 31-game winning streak at home and improved to 6-2.

    The second half of the season wouldn't go quite as well for the Giants, but they earned New York bragging rights with a win over the Jets and beat the Cowboys twice to punch their playoff ticket.