A Date To Remember is an occasional series Big Blue View will be running through the Super Bowl, highlighting the glory of the Giants’ past and celebrating the biggest playoff wins in franchise history.
A Hail Mary
Jan. 15, 2012
NFC Divisional Round game
Giants 37, Packers 20
The football dropped out of the sky, falling in an arc toward the outstretched arms of Hakeem Nicks.
He positioned himself in the left corner of the end zone and raised his 10½-inch hands.
And there it landed.
Nicks trapped the Hail Mary pass from Eli Manning against his face mask, then cradled the ball to his chest as he fell to the turf.
Lambeau Field went silent, rendered utterly speechless. The stunned crowd then watched in disbelief as the Giants swarmed the field in celebration.
It was only halftime, but the 2011 NFC divisional round game was all but over.
Four years after David Tyree’s helmet catch in Super Bowl XLII, Nicks’ 37-yard Hail Mary touchdown propelled the Giants — eight-point underdogs on the road — to a 37-20 upset over the 15-1, defending Super Bowl champion Packers. And it announced them as legit contenders.
”I actually didn’t realize that it was off of my helmet,” the third-year receiver told me and other reporters. “I thought it was on my chest or something. ... When I went back to see it on film, it was actually a pretty good catch.”
There were many unifying moments late in the 2011 season.
Victor Cruz’s 99-yard game-breaking touchdown against the Jets when the Giants were struggling at 7-7. Eli Manning’s perfect throw and Mario Manningham’s brilliant over-the-shoulder catch and toe-tapping footwork along the sideline in the game-winning drive of Super Bowl XLVI.
But the Hail Mary on the final snap of the first half might have been the most significant play of the season.
It was a turning point in the game and their postseason run.
This was no longer the 9-7 team that snuck into the playoffs on the final day of the regular season. The Giants always believed. But after that play, there was a feeling of destiny surrounding the team, just as there had been in 2007.
The series of crippling injuries, the brief Osi Umenyiora training camp holdout, Justin Tuck’s subpar season and the second-half swoon? They were all forgotten.
Maybe, with that play, the Giants became the team they were always destined to be.
”Sixty minutes away from the dream,” Nicks said. “It’s something that we look forward to as a team. Something I’ve been looking forward to my whole life.”
That dream being Super Bowl XLVI.
Lawrence Tynes, the kicker on the 2007 and 2011 Super Bowl champions, thinks it was the closeness within the Giants’ locker room that made them special.
”If you have a group that has camaraderie and true happiness for the guy next to you when he does well and no ‘me guys’ — those were those two teams in a nutshell,” he told Big Blue View.
The Hail Mary reception almost didn’t happen.
Ahmad Bradshaw broke a 23-yard cutback run on the previous play, weaving through the Packers defense before heading out of bounds to stop the clock.
It gave the Giants six seconds to work their magic. Manning (21-of-33 passing for 330 yards and three touchdowns) and Nicks took care of the rest.
But the receiver actually mistimed the Hail Mary’s arrival, which is why it hit him in the helmet.
However, he had boxed out Packers Hall of Fame safety Charles Woodson. And leaping largely uncontested, Nicks had the presence of mind to lock his hands — encased in bright red, size 4-XL gloves — over the football, pinning it to his face mask and then his midsection before Woodson and Charlie Peprah swatted at him in vain.
It gave the Giants a 20-10 lead at halftime.
”When I saw those red gloves go up [I thought], ‘He is going to be up above everybody else, and we would have a good chance of catching that one,’” coach Tom Coughlin said.
”These are special hands.”
Nicks finished with seven receptions for 165 yards and two touchdowns, including a 66-yard catch-and-run first-quarter score in which he bounced off Peprah and outran the Green Bay defense.
He had recorded his second straight 1,000-yard campaign in 2011, catching 76 passes for 1,192 yards and seven touchdowns in 15 games.
But it didn’t always come easy. Nicks battled injuries all season, including a sore hamstring and a hyperextended and bruised knee. And he uncharacteristically dropped three passes in a devastating mid-December home loss to the last-place Redskins that nearly knocked the Giants out of postseason contention.
But as they had all season, the Giants found a way.
The divisional round victory came four years after they upset Brett Favre and Green Bay in overtime at Lambeau in the 2007 NFC title game. It also avenged an early December home loss to Green Bay, 38-35, when Rodgers threw four touchdown passes.
And once again in that 2011 postseason, the Giants defense came up big — this time against that season’s MVP.
Of course, they were quite aware of who they were facing.
A piece of paper hung on Antrel Rolle’s postgame locker, depicting Rodgers’ head with an arrow pointing to a cherry Tootsie Pop.
Below it was the word “sucker.”
Umenyiora — who returned from a high-ankle sprain in the final regular-season game and posted 5½ sacks in the final five games — again led the pass rush.
He registered two of the Giants’ four sacks and stripped Rodgers for one of their three forced fumbles.
And the offense put the game away with 6:48 remaining when Manning hit Manningham with a 4-yard touchdown pass to take a 30-13 lead.
“I think we’re a dangerous team,” Coughlin said. “I like where we are and how we’re playing.”
It only got better.