Top 20 Games of 2011

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Game 2: Giants at Cowboys Week 14

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What is a big game exactly? Is it a simple playoff game? Conference championship? Super Bowl?

For Eli Manning, it’s the latter. And coming into our No. 2 game of 2011, he had already won one of those.

As for Tony Romo, any game he lost was a big game. Any game he won was, well, just a game.

Ironically, Eli’s older brother Peyton dealt with the same issue before he finally hoisted a Lombardi Trophy after winning Super Bowl XLI. The younger Manning won it all so early in his career that he escaped this kind of nonsensical scrutiny.

Romo hasn’t, because he’s failed to deliver those same goods in the playoffs.

Incidentally, by all accounts, New York’s visit to Dallas in Week 14 qualified as a big game. With a win, the Cowboys would gain a two-game divisional edge on the Giants with just three to play. New York carried a much heavier burden, with the possibility of falling to 6-7, basically giving Tom Coughlin’s group zero shot of a wild-card berth. Speculation abounded that a loss would also cost Coughlin his job.

Wouldn’t you say all of that constitutes a big game?

Yes -- particularly for Eli himself.

At this stage, Manning’s only concern outside of winning was being considered in the class of Tom Brady. In fact, Manning had pined for such credit in the offseason, wondering aloud why he wasn’t considered in the same elite tier as New England’s vaunted signal caller (whom Eli beat in Super Bowl XLII).

For Romo, the Week 14 matchup was another game to either fail or pass. And per usual, the stakes would be considered much higher if he faltered. Fair or not, his 1-3 record in the playoffs holds his career résumé hostage. (Unfortunately for Romo, what it took to actually get his team to those four playoff games is never considered.)

Two quarterbacks with a lot on the line entering this Sunday nighter. And wouldn’t you know it, both played the exact same: out of their minds.

The Giants jumped out to a rare 5-0 lead with a Jason Pierre-Paul safety and a Lawrence Tynes field goal. But Romo struck back, directing an eight-play, 80-yard drive that culminated in a beautifully designed tight end screen to backup John Phillips for a 12-yard touchdown. Dallas’ lead was brief, though, as Manning countered with an 80-yard drive of his own to make it 12-7, G-Men.

In fact, Manning would continue to expose the Dallas Cowboys’ secondary -- and simultaneously their blitz -- all night long. With Dallas leading this back-and-forth contest 20-15 late in the third, defensive coordinator Rob Ryan sent seven guys on a third-and-5. Manning calmly stuck in the pocket and then heaved the ball downfield to Mario Manningham, who was running free at the 25. Suddenly, it was 22-20, with the Giants regaining the lead.

Not for long.

On third-and-10 from his own 20, Romo rolled out of trouble as only he (and Ben Roethlisberger) can. Then he proceeded to launch a pass over 50 yards in the air right into the hands of a sprinting Laurent Robinson, who took it down inside the 7-yard line. Romo connected with Miles Austin from there to stake the Cowboys with another lead at 27-22.

After a Giants turnover, Romo was really feeling it. On second down from the 50, he stepped up in the pocket, but then he felt a push from the Giants interior. Romo astutely retreated a couple steps back before planting to throw another deep ball, this time to a waiting (and wide open) Dez Bryant. Romo had fooled the Giants’ secondary by stepping up into traffic, then bouncing back out and heaving the ball behind them.

Game on.

Manning’s style might not resemble a hyperactive 50-year-old racquetball player at the local Y quite like Romo’s does, but Eli does manage to move around enough to make the clutch throws when he has to. And at this point in the game, he had to. New York’s playoff hopes were getting buried in a 10-gallon Cowboy hat, down 34-22 with just 5:41 left in regulation.

That’s when the Super Bowl winner showed why he is just that, making a clutch throw to Victor Cruz on third down before putting the ball right on Jake Ballard in the end zone. New York was within five points at 34-29, and we were all witnessing major league quarterbacking at its zenith.

That’s when our No. 2 game of 2011 tilted in the Giants’ favor.

First, Romo couldn’t connect with a wide-open Austin downfield on a third-and-5 -- a fateful pass that the receiver said he lost in the lights.

On the ensuing Giants drive, Manningham dropped a sure touchdown pass with 1:27 left. To their immense credit, Manning and the offense still scored. And in the process, the Giants burned 41 more seconds off the clock while forcing Dallas to burn its timeouts. New York tacked on a two-point conversation to take a 37-34 lead with just 46 ticks left.

Romo wouldn’t need the timeouts anyway, playing like an “elite” quarterback and making two beautiful throws to a crossing Austin to get Dallas into field goal range at the Giants’ 30. All the Cowboys needed was for Dan Bailey to bury the kick and send this barnburner to overtime.

Pierre-Paul buried the Cowboys instead. Long after scoring the game’s first points with a safety, the second-year freak blocked the kick, and in the process, started Big Blue on a thrilling run to its second Super Bowl title in five years.

Head scratcher: Romo’s failed connection to Austin in the fourth quarter affected a lot more than just whether the Cowboys beat the Giants in Week 14. It left a pretty large footprint on the entire season. Enough so that an entire article was dedicated to it.

Can’t-miss play: Manning has manufactured some huge plays at the Cowboys’ expense during his eight-year career, and even gained his first ever “W” against the Cowboys in 2004. He just annihilated the Cowboys’ blitz last season, exposing Ryan’s mediocre safeties over and over again. In 2011, Manning registered a sparkling 126.6 passer rating vs. the Dallas blitz, throwing three touchdown passes and zero interceptions in the process.

A 64-yard bomb early in the first quarter was another example of Manning’s composure, as he found Hakeem Nicks deep down the field on a play that saw the Cowboys rush five. While sending five pass rushers is not exactly sending the house, the point is that spasmodic movement on the defensive front doesn’t rattle Manning. Nor does having pressure in his face. He’s truly a great player.

Play of the game: There were few plays in the 2011 season that were more timely, more clutch, than Pierre-Paul’s block of Bailey’s kick at the end of the game. It was the biggest special teams play of the year. Of course, it came after the incredibly annoying freeze-the-kicker timeout. There is nothing annoying about Pierre-Paul’s ability.

Best player on the field: Romo and Manning. Both did everything you could possibly do to win this football game. Thanks to Pierre-Paul, Manning did win.

Of the top 50 single-game passer ratings last season, only one came in a losing effort: Romo’s 141.3 in Week 14.

Why this game is No. 2: New York-Dallas Week 14 was played at the highest level of any game all season. Romo and Manning’s duel was one for the ages. Even NBC analyst Cris Collinsworth suggested it couldn’t have been played any better from the quarterback position.

What really added to the high level play was the fact that this was a classic NFC East game with a lot on the line. If the Giants had lost, their season was pretty much done -- a season that eventually ended with Super Bowl confetti. And the final sequence at the end, with Coughlin calling a timeout to freeze the kicker, followed by Pierre-Paul’s block ... Well, that was just enough to make this game silly good.

Why not higher?: There was only one game that the majority of analysts, NFL employees and fans I spoke with recalled immediately when asked about the best game of 2011. This Giants-Cowboys instant classic was not it.

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