Top 20 Games of 2011

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Game 18: Giants at 49ers Week 10

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It would serve as a warm-up act for the NFC title game: New York Giants at San Francisco 49ers, Week 10.

Much of what you eventually saw from Giants-Niners in late January was on display in this October matchup, our 18th installment in the Top 20 Games of 2011. Obviously, this game didn’t carry the same stakes as the NFC title bout, but this midseason contest certainly provided championship-level drama.

And truth be told, this edition of Giants-Niners was as much follow-up as it was warm-up, at least when you consider the insane stockpile of classic wars these two teams have waged over the years, in both the regular season and the playoffs.

On this day, the G-Men arrived in San Francisco with a first-place record of 6-2, while the Niners were a surprising 7-1 under rookie head coach Jim Harbaugh.

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It would be a competitive game throughout, with each defense playing hardball throughout the first half. In fact, neither team allowed a touchdown, despite the fact that both clubs got into the red zone repeatedly.

That all changed in the third quarter when Eli Manning and Mario Manningham connected on one of the prettiest throw-and-catches you’ll ever see. Manning delivered a perfectly lofted ball and Manningham executed a Chris Carter-style tap dance at the back of the end zone to give the Giants a 13-12 late in the third. New York’s lead didn’t last long, though.

Vernon Davis took an “under” route and ran with it, putting the finishing touches on a Niners score with an awkward leap into the end zone. After a two-point conversion, and an Kendall Hunter touchdown on the next Niners possession, this former defensive battle was now 27-13.

But as was the case so many times in 2011, Eli Manning thrived in the fourth quarter. First, Manning led the offense on a seven-play, 80-yard drive, ending with a brilliant 32-yard touchdown pass to Hakeem Nicks (see below). Then, the New York offense went on a 16-play (16!), 70-yard march to get into a position to win, with Manning converting on a pair of fourth downs in the process.

But San Francisco’s front seven stiffened once New York reached the 10, and the Giants were left with a fourth-and-2 situation. And much like the NFC championship game three months later -- and so many Giants-Niners battles of yesteryear -- the final play came down to defense. San Francisco defensive end Justin Smith never gave Manning’s fourth-down throw a shot, batting the ball down at the line.

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Can’t-miss play: Manning’s 32-yard scoring strike to make it a one-score game late in the fourth was a thing of beauty… but not because of Eli. Nicks executed one of the hardest things to do in sports, catching a ball directly over his helmet while going full speed. Anyone who’s ever donned a helmet knows how hard it is to track a ball while crooning backward with your head, helmet bouncing up and down, defensive back in close proximity. What a play by Nicks.

Same ol’ situation 1: Manning made several huge plays with the game on the line, including not one, but two fourth-down conversions on the game’s final drive. Both throws had to be superbly accurate in tight coverage. First, Manning hit Manningham on a fourth-and-6 in double coverage. And then he followed that up with a similar throw to tight end Jake Ballard on the other side of the field. It’s no surprise that Manning’s fourth-quarter passer rating was 110.0 in 2011.

Same ol’ situation 2: Justin Smith won the game for the 49ers on the make-or-break fourth down. With the Giants knocking on the door at the 10-yard line, Smith batted Manning’s pass down, negating any chance for more Nicks, Manningham or Ballard heroics. How many times in 2012 did San Fran’s front seven put the team on its back and call it a day?

Play of the game: On that ill-fated final Giants possession, Manningham had an opportunity to be the hero months before he truly became one in Super Bowl XLVI. Manning let fly from midfield with Manningham having a step on safety Dashon Goldson. The sucker hung in the air at least 45 yards … before missing Manningham’s gloves by about 45 millimeters. Maybe he should’ve laid out. Either way, this would have been a 27-all ballgame … with Alex Smith being forced to return volley.

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Best player on the field: Patrick Willis. He didn’t force any fumbles, didn’t pick off any passes and didn’t record a single sack. But damn, he was all over the field, securing 11 tackles while disrupting several players away from the ball. Case in point: He pretty much manhandled Ballard on the game-deciding fourth-down play.

Why this game is No. 18: This might not have been the NFC title game, but it was better than over 200 other NFL games in 2011. This Week 10 matchup had several meaningful fourth-down plays, clutch defense, clutch offense, and oh by the way, featured a sweet uni matchup. It doesn’t get much better than Giants road whites vs. Niners home reds, on natural grass, no less. (If you’re into that sort of thing ...)

Why not higher?: Let’s face it, there were many fantastic games last season. The slow pace of the first three quarters and a big drop being so influential put this game a little lower on the list, and made it quite similar to our No. 17 game of 2010, Steelers-Bills. Anyone remember this guy’s drop?

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