Clutch play on third-and-long helped Giants reach Super Bowl

When you have the NFL's 32nd-ranked running game, you will inevitably face a lot of third-and-long situations. And as expected, the Giants have throughout the NFC playoffs. But unexpectedly, New York has somehow overcome those situations, converting at an incredible rate.

In third-and-six-plus yards situations, the Giants converted for a first down five of eight times against Atlanta, five of six against Green Bay and five of 11 against San Francisco. That's a total of 15-for-25, or a 60 percent success rate.

Eli Manning's numbers in such situations have been remarkable this postseason: He's completed 18 of 21 attempted passes for 287 yards, one touchdown and no interceptions.

Here's a breakdown by game:
Vs. Atlanta: 7-for-7 for 113 yards
At Green Bay: 5-for-5 for 79 yards
At San Francisco: 6-for-9 for 95 yards and a touchdown

Defenses strive to get offenses into third-and-long situations. They work their butts off on first and second downs so they can set themselves up for a prime opportunity to get the offense off the field. Every time the offense converts and remains in the game, the defense loses a little spirit. The prospect of facing a fresh set of downs can be exhausting, if not demoralizing.

Typically, the offensive catalysts for success in third-and-long situations are:

  1. Pass protection
    1. Multiple threats at receiver
    2. Poise and timing at quarterback

For New York, these three things have worked in concert throughout the postseason. The trifecta of Victor Cruz, Hakeem Nicks and Mario Manningham at wide receiver discourages the defense from blitzing, which helps the pass protection. With solid protection against three- and four-man rushes, Manning can find one of his three wide receivers working through a zone, or against a Cover 2-man scheme. If the defense blitzes, Manning can quickly diagnose it and exploit the mismatch outside.

When Manning threw a go-ahead, fourth-quarter touchdown pass to Manningham in the NFC Championship Game, the Giants were facing third-and-15.

The 49ers rushed three and dropped eight into coverage, leaving no one to pressure Manning. Because of the eight-man coverage, there weren't many open targets or windows through which to throw a pass. Nicks, Cruz and tight end Jake Ballard were all well-covered. But all Manning needed was one option.

Manning calmly stood in a well-formed pocket and delivered a strike into the weakness of the defense, with Manningham breaking to the inside against a deep-third, outside-leveraged defender. The play put the Giants up 17-14. It was an excellent call and executed perfectly by New York.

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