EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. -- Fighting, scrapping in their bid to end a three-game losing streak, the San Francisco 49ers showed game. Their defense forced the Giants to a three-and-out punt with 5:08 remaining. The 49ers trailed 27-17. Two more possessions, two more scores and the 49ers could breathe verve into a season slipping into gloom.
They began on their 20-yard line after the punt.
First play, quarterback J.T. O'Sullivan on a pass attempt is slung around by stout end Justin Tuck. The ball pops loose. It is kicked around by both teams and winds up in the 49ers' end zone. And 49ers rookie receiver Josh Morgan decides to boot it completely out of the end zone to avoid worse than the safety that is charged.
One minute they are heading north and in an instant they are heading south. As in a 2-5 record after the Giants stupefied them 29-17 at Giants Stadium .
There were two O'Sullivan interceptions, both by safety Michael Johnson, the first leading to a Giants field goal and the second in New York's end zone on a play that began at the Giants' 19. Both picks were in the final four minutes of the second quarter and helped New York to a 17-10 halftime lead.
There were breakdowns and there were miscues and there was sloppy play on both sides.
They failed to take control at any point in this road game though the opportunities were there.
This is how losing streaks breed. Bits and pieces coalesce into one gigantic headache.
"We keep finding ways to hurt ourselves," 49ers safety Michael Lewis said. "We're always in the games. But we're finding ways to lose them."
Receiver Isaac Bruce echoed that thought, but in a 15-year-veteran, philosophical way: "The small foxes spoil the vine. The little things. That's our problem."
Little things turn into colossal things.
Ask 49ers cornerback Nate Clements, who kept getting torched on critical pass-interference plays among other fouls, then late in the third quarter scooped up a blocked field goal attempt and raced 74 yards untouched to close the Giants' lead to 24-17. The Giants would gain a field goal early in the fourth quarter, but the 49ers' defense rose after that and forced that punt and the team looked ready to soar.
But, of course, that was when north became south.
"It's hard to predict what will happen in these games," Clements said. "I kept trying to make some plays that would help us win the game."
But the Giants were a touch smarter, a bit more efficient and a heck of a lot more tenacious in avoiding stumbling over their own feet.
They ran the ball twice as many times as the 49ers, sacked O'Sullivan six times, averaged 48.8 yards per punt and led in time of possession by nine minutes.
"We could have played better, but they set the example of how mistakes creep up on you and bite you," Giants running back Brandon Jacobs said after his two-rushing touchdown day. "Mistakes are the difference between winning and losing. We made a few. But they made a few more. We're a good football team. We know we have to play better. More games and competition and reps for us will get us better."
Tuck offered that this game was a redemption one for him and his teammates. The 35-14 loss at Cleveland had left a lingering sour taste among the Giants.
"We were able to contain Frank Gore and their running game early and that turned things into a situation that's good for us -- them throwing, us rushing," Tuck said. "Coming off a game where we did not play our best, we faced some adversity. But this team is becoming very good at smiling at adversity. We can build on this."
The Giants must with their next game at Pittsburgh followed by a home game against Dallas, one of five divisional games New York has remaining.
The Giants? Give them this -- they know the difference between north and south. They know how to force the action. They know how to cover their warts. They know how to hang around. They know when a team will cough it up -- and how to get to 5-1 in this marathon NFL season.