When the New York Giants whipped the San Francisco 49ers, 26-3, on Sunday, they put together what was, in my opinion, the most impressive victory of the 2012 NFL season. We've seen a few upsets this year, like the Indianapolis Colts knocking off the Green Bay Packers and the Arizona Cardinals surprising the New England Patriots, but no win has been quite as complete as the Giants' thrashing of the Niners.
Here are five reasons that this victory stands above every other win thus far:
1) The Giants' offensive line dominated the 49ers' front seven. The 49ers have the NFL's most physical front seven. Justin Smith, Aldon Smith, Patrick Willis and NaVorro Bowman are all among the NFL's top defensive players. The Giants' offensive line handled this talented group throughout the game. The unit helped the downhill running attack rack up 149 rushing yards, and it didn't allow a single sack in pass protection.
2) The Giants' defensive line dominated the 49ers' offensive line. In Weeks 4 and 5, the Niners averaged 278 rushing yards against the New York Jets and Buffalo Bills. They have one of the NFL's bigger offensive lines, a mauling unit at the point of attack. It usually wears down opposing defensive lines in the second halves of games, creating big creases for their running backs. The Giants' defensive line, however, stood up to the test, holding the 49ers to 80 rushing yards. The unit used its quickness to knife through gaps and dominated passing situations; the Giants' defense finished with eight tackles for a loss and six sacks.
3) Eli Manning played mistake-free football. The 49ers' defense thrives on turnovers. Last season, San Francisco recorded 23 interceptions (tied for second-most in the NFL) and recovered 15 fumbles (tied for best in the league). The Niners' defensive linemen are well-schooled when it comes to slapping at the football, and the players in their secondary are very instinctive. On Sunday, however, Manning was able to calmly maneuver around the pass rush while protecting the football, and avoided throwing any interceptions. Manning didn't just play it safe, either; he fit several balls into very tight quarters for big completions, including a laser pass to Victor Cruz for Big Blue's first touchdown.
4) The Giants picked off Alex Smith three times. Everyone loves to debate whether or not Alex Smith is a Super Bowl-caliber quarterback, but there's no disputing the fact that he usually takes good care of the football. Through Week 5, Smith had thrown just one interception, after throwing just five all last season. On Sunday, though, the Giants' secondary had no trouble reading his mail, jumping several routes and coming away with three interceptions, marking the first time since 2009 that he'd been picked off that many times.
5) The Giants flourished in a hostile environment. Sunday's contest was billed as a "payback" game by the fans in the Bay Area. The Giants' razor-close win over the 49ers in last year's NFC title matchup was supposed to serve as tremendous motivation for Jim Harbaugh's squad, and the Niners were incredibly amped up for this game. Yet the Giants calmly and methodically dominated them from start to finish.
It's been a little over a month since the Giants' season-opening loss to the Dallas Cowboys sparked a flurry of questions:
Well, after Sunday's performance, there's only one question that should be asked: Are the New York Giants the most complete team in the NFL?
Impressive in defeat
Despite losing on the scoreboard Sunday, these two teams have reason to be encouraged in defeat:
Dallas Cowboys: The Cowboys lost a heartbreaker to the Baltimore Ravens, 31-29, when kicker Dan Bailey's 51-yard field-goal attempt sailed wide left with two seconds remaining in regulation. But Jason Garrett's squad did plenty of good things.
The Cowboys ran all over the once-vaunted Baltimore defense, rolling up 227 yards on the ground while averaging 5.4 yards per carry. The passing game was solid, as well; Tony Romo threw for 261 yards, two touchdowns and one interception, while Dez Bryant and Jason Witten combined to catch 19 passes for 183 yards. Dallas' defense didn't play as well as the offense, but the unit held Ravens running back Ray Rice to 63 yards rushing.
Oakland Raiders: The Raiders came close to giving the Atlanta Falcons their first loss of the season, but fell short when kicker Matt Bryant connected on a 55-yard game-winning field goal in the closing seconds. However, the Raiders gave their fans several reasons to take heart.
Oakland quarterback Carson Palmer threw a costly pick-six late in the fourth quarter, but he played very well for the majority of the game, finishing with 353 passing yards and gaining an even nine yards per attempt. The Raiders' rushing attack, meanwhile, piled up 149 yards at an average of 4.7 yards per carry, and the defense harassed Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan all day long, picking off three balls.
Didn't see this coming
All four teams in the AFC East are 3-3.
If there was one thing I thought I knew prior to the start of the 2012 season, it was that the New England Patriots would be head-and-shoulders above the rest of the AFC East. Well, so much for that.
I expected much better from the Patriots and much worse from the New York Jets, Buffalo Bills and Miami Dolphins. I still believe that the Patriots will eventually establish themselves as the class of this division, but they need to get better play out of their offensive line and secondary. Meanwhile, the team to keep an eye on is the Dolphins, who should get better throughout the year as Ryan Tannehill's confidence continues to grow.
Three startling statistics
1) In their last three games, the Arizona Cardinals have allowed 22 sacks. Despite losing two straight, the 4-2 Cardinals are still in good shape in the NFC West, sitting in a three-way tie for first with the Seattle Seahawks and San Francisco 49ers. However, Arizona's inability to protect the quarterback is a major cause for concern. The Buffalo Bills' much-maligned pass rush feasted against the Cardinals' offensive line on Sunday, collecting a total of five sacks. I don't see how the Cardinals can solve this issue, given a lack of talent at both offensive tackle positions.
2) Through six games, the Kansas City Chiefs' longest pass completion has gone for 33 yards. Jamaal Charles has provided some explosive running plays this season, but the Chiefs' passing attack has really struggled to push the ball down the field. Kansas City is the only team in the NFL that has yet to produce a single passing play of more than 40 yards. The Chiefs' inability to stretch the field through the air will negatively affect their rushing attack as opposing defenses start playing their safeties closer to the line of scrimmage.
3) Five quarterbacks threw for more than 350 yards while failing to produce a win in Week 6: New England's Tom Brady (395 yards), Cincinnati's Andy Dalton (381), Pittsburgh's Ben Roethlisberger (363), Oakland's Carson Palmer (353) and Minnesota's Christian Ponder (352). Huge passing-yardage totals always look pretty in the box score, but they don't always translate to victories. Each of these quarterbacks moved the ball up and down the field on Sunday, but their nine combined touchdown passes were offset by nine combined interceptions.
Gang Green finds its feet
On Sunday, the New York Jets found something they've been searching for all season: a running game. Mark Sanchez has struggled, but he hasn't had much help from his ground attack. That changed in a 35-9 win over the Indianapolis Colts, with the Jets racking up 252 rushing yards.
As a team, the Jets had eclipsed 100 rushing yards just one other time this season. After rushing for 123 yards combined in the previous four games, Shonn Greene exploded for 161 yards and three touchdowns on Sunday. The Jets committed to the run early and didn't waver from their game plan, handing the ball off 44 times while attempting just 19 passes.
Despite suffering a couple of lopsided losses and crushing injuries, the Jets are still in the AFC East race. If they want to stay there, they need to continue to run the ball like they did Sunday. This "ground and pound" style isn't just the best way for the Jets to be successful, it's the only way.
Thursday Night Football can't get here fast enough
While I usually devote the entirety of my Monday column to Sunday's action, I can't help but peek ahead to Thursday night's NFC West showdown, when the 4-2 Seattle Seahawks travel to San Francisco to face the 4-2 49ers. This is going to be an incredibly physical football game. I can't wait to see how the 49ers respond after their poor showing against the Giants.
Harbaugh and Seattle coach Pete Carroll don't particularly like one another, and neither do their teams. Despite their personal differences, both squads have quite a bit in common, relying on power running games, disruptive defensive fronts and hard-hitting defensive backs. This is going to be fun to watch!
Follow Daniel Jeremiah on Twitter @MoveTheSticks.