Giants play small after rough week

Given that less than a week had passed since Hurricane Sandy turned lives all over the northeast upside down, it would have been easy to forgive the New York Giants for their lackluster showing in their 24-20 loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers on Sunday afternoon.

After all, every player in the New York locker room had been impacted by the devastating storm to some degree, with many living with friends or family or out of hotels after being displaced from their homes. And in addition to the physical and emotional damage caused by the storm, Sandy also threw off the Giants’ rhythm as they prepared to face one of the AFC’s best teams.

Certainly, any football-related disruptions seem insignificant in comparison to the dire circumstances facing many others in the New York area, as too many people are still trying to figure out where or how to start putting their lives back together. But the storm’s effect on the Giants was real, and had they used it as an excuse for the loss, few would have faulted them.

However, the team wasn’t about to blame Sunday’s loss on the storm, and as the Giants tried to explain away the defeat, which dropped them to 6-3 on the season, Sandy never became a scapegoat. Instead, head coach Tom Coughlin pointed to a stagnant offense, an inconsistent defense and an awful special teams effort as the reasons for his team’s disappointing performance.

“When we got to work Wednesday afternoon, it was time to go to work,” said Coughlin, who was more animated and red-faced than usual after the game.

“Has everyone in this part of the world been affected by this tragic storm? Yes. Yes we have. But is that an excuse? No. We’re professional football players, and the game will go on. We anticipated that, we never thought of it any other way, and we prepared ourselves accordingly.”

The Giants may have felt prepared — not to mention especially inspired — when they took the field Sunday, but you wouldn’t have known it based on the team’s performance, particularly on offense, in front of an announced crowd of 80,991 fans desperately hoping for a Giants win.

For the second straight week, New York scored just one offensive touchdown, and the Giants managed just 182 total yards of offense. New York had only five first downs in the second half and wasn’t able move the sticks once on three fourth-quarter possessions, including a potential game-winning drive that started with the Giants trailing 24-20 with 3:55 left in the fourth quarter.

Most notably, Eli Manning continued his trend of poor play, following up on last week’s unremarkable effort in an ugly win over the Dallas Cowboys by going 10-of-24 for 125 yards, with no touchdowns and one interception against Pittsburgh.

Sunday marked only the 12th time in Manning’s career he threw for 125 passing yards or fewer in a game, and the first such occurrence since December 2008. It was also just the 11th time Manning completed 10 or fewer passes in a game, and only the third time he’s done so while throwing the ball at least 24 times.

Things didn’t go much better on the ground, either, with Ahmad Bradshaw and Andre Brown combining for 68 yards on 22 carries, the third-lowest rushing total for the Giants backfield this season. And had New York not been the beneficiaries of a few big calls, it may not have found the end zone at all.

The referees penalized Pittsburgh six times for 119 yards on Sunday, including pass interference penalties of 41 and 46 yards by Steelers cornerback Keenan Lewis. All told, the Steelers’ infractions accounted for nearly 40 percent of New York’s offensive ball movement in the game.

In addition to the sheer number of penalties the Giants had go in their favor, it was also hard to overlook the significance of close calls that went New York’s way. The first break came with 10:41 left in the second quarter, when the refs flagged Lewis for the first of his pass interference calls on what looked like a clean play, giving the Giants the ball at the Steelers 16-yard line.

Six plays later, with New York facing third-and-goal from the Pittsburgh 2, Manning threw an incomplete pass intended for Victor Cruz, who was targeted 11 times but had just five receptions. But a personal foul penalty on Pittsburgh safety Ryan Clark for an apparently clean hit on Cruz gave New York first-and-goal from the 1 and set up a Brown touchdown run on the next snap.

The Giants’ other touchdown Sunday came just four plays later, when Osi Umenyiora sacked Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger and forced a fumble, which linebacker Michael Boley returned 70 yards for a score. Replay seemed to show that the play should have been ruled an incomplete pass, but the officials upheld the original call, and New York took a 14-7 lead.

New York led 20-10 going into the fourth quarter after two field goals from Lawrence Tynes, who missed a 51-yard kick short earlier in the game, but on the second play of the fourth, Steelers wideout Mike Wallace showed off his speed and took a short slant pass 51 yards for a touchdown.

Later in the quarter, after allowing a 63-yard punt return by Emmanuel Sanders, the Giants sniffed out a head-scratcher of a fake field goal attempt by the Steelers. But New York failed to build off that momentum, and after another three-and-out, the Giants allowed a one-yard touchdown run by Isaac Redman (26 carries, 147 yards) with 4:08 left to play that ended up being the difference.

Right now, this is a Giants team that looks nothing like the squad that dominated San Francisco in Week 6, and there is plenty of room for improvement as New York looks ahead to a trip to Cincinnati next week.

It’s been a rough go for this physically and emotionally battered Giants team over the last few days, but they aren’t letting that be an excuse. If anything, the opportunity to shed some light on a downtrodden city should only serve to motivate them more as they try to get back on track against the Bengals.

“I wanted everyone to realize what we were trying to do was give them a few hours of enjoyment in a very, very difficult time and let them know that we understood the mass difficulties that were facing our neighbors,” Coughlin said of the team’s effort Sunday.

“Many, many people are fighting to survive, fighting to get their homes back, their families reunited and all those kinds of things in the aftermath of a tragic, tragic storm. … I hope the message came through that we were trying, but we didn’t accomplish what we set out to do.”

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