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EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. -- The fourth quarter had just started and the New York Giants were nursing a comfy 21-10 lead.
The Detroit Lions had a backup quarterback in, their running game had been held in check and in 15 minutes Dallas Week would commence. But before the Giants could start thinking of new ways to say how much they hate the Cowboys, Calvin Johnson struck on an 87-yard, catch-and-run touchdown with 13:17 remaining.
And just like that, the wideout known as Megatron had transformed what appeared to be a routine Giants win into a sudden struggle.
|The Giants' secondary gave up a big play to Calvin Johnson, but they also made some big plays themselves in the fourth quarter.|
"I can honestly say that play definitely woke me up," said safety Antrel Rolle, who was supposed to be over the top of Johnson but came in underneath, allowing Johnson to catch the ball past Terrell Thomas.
Last season, the Giants allowed way too many plays like this one. An electric wide receiver would take a pass and run for a long touchdown, and the flood gates would open on a leaky defense.
But the difference this season can be seen in the play of the Giants' safeties. General manager Jerry Reese signed two veteran safeties in the offseason, and both made winning plays in the final five minutes Sunday to lift the Giants to a 28-20 win over the Lions.
Deon Grant, who has been one of the most versatile players for the Giants' defense, halted one Lions drive at midfield with a heads-up fumble recovery off wide receiver Nate Burleson. And after the Lions pulled within one score late, the Giants' defense had to make a final stand and it did when Rolle, the team's biggest free-agent acquisition, came up with a game-sealing interception of Drew Stanton with 20 seconds left at the Giants' 16-yard line.
All of this just happened to take place with former Giants safety C.C. Brown on the field. Brown, who is now with the Lions, was forced to start last season when Kenny Phillips went down after two games -- and struggled badly with his coverage.
Brown, who was demoted last season, felt he was the scapegoat for the Giants' collapse, and that the media forced Tom Coughlin's hand in his benching and subsequent exit from New York. Then, prior to this week's game, Brown made some curious comments about how Eli Manning is inconsistent.
The Giants can happily say that Brown is the Lions' problem these days. There is no safety problem on this team this season.
"Our safeties did a great job, [Grant] and Antrel, of making plays for us to get us off the football field," defensive end Justin Tuck said.
It was partially Rolle's fault that Johnson was able to take that catch over Thomas and run down the left sideline untouched for the touchdown. "It wasn't a bad angle," Rolle said. "I should have definitely stayed on top of him, being it was a two-man coverage. I thought Terrell Thomas was going to make that play. I kind of eased off on the play and instead of easing off and staying on top, I came underneath him."
Unlike during the previous two weeks, when the Giants played suffocating defense against Chicago and Houston to become the NFL's top-ranked defense, Perry Fewell's unit gave up 302 passing yards to two backup quarterbacks in Shaun Hill and Stanton. Even though the Lions didn't do anything on the ground (64 rushing yards), Johnson made the kind of big play that can deflate a defense and turn one crack in the foundation into a major leak.
"Anytime you give up an 80- or 90-yard touchdown, you should feel relieved to win that game," said defensive tackle Barry Cofield.
Like Rolle, the Giants woke up just in time. They forced a three-and-out on Detroit's next possession after the touchdown.
When the Giants' offense stalled, the Lions drove from their 13-yard line to the 50. Stanton threw a pass for Johnson, but Phillips (who had seven tackles in the game) cracked Johnson to force an incomplete pass.
On the next play, Stanton hit Burleson across the middle for 8 yards on third-and-5, but Grant (who also had seven tackles) hit Burleson and the wide receiver lost the ball as he was falling to the turf. Even though Burleson's body landed on top of the ball, Grant, who was on top of Burleson, somehow saw the ball and secured it.
"I knew it was out because their sideline was yelling," Grant said.
The Giants scored a touchdown to go up 28-17 with 3:24 remaining, but the special-teams unit allowed a 58-yard return on the kickoff. Grant made the tackle on the return. That, though, set up a Jason Hanson 50-yard field goal.
The Giants' offense stalled again, and the Lions had the ball back at their own 14-yard line with 2:18 left.
If the Giants are going to be anything different than last year's debacle, they have to win home games like this one against a team that had lost 23 straight on the road.
Stanton drove the Lions to the Giants' 38 with 20 seconds remaining. With Johnson on their team, the Lions were one spectacular catch away from scoring. But Stanton threw a high pass intended for tight end Brandon Pettigrew, and the ball glanced off his hands and straight into Rolle's.
Rolle returned it 36 yards before falling down, and the Giants had their third straight win.
Even though Rolle made a mistake on the Johnson touchdown, he redeemed himself with the game-clinching interception. It was the kind of safety play that didn't exist last season.
Perhaps this season is shaping up to be different than last year, thanks to a couple of new safeties.
"We definitely rose to the occasion on several chances," Rolle said. "We are honestly playing as a team and that's the biggest momentum that we have going for us right now."Ohm Youngmisuk covers the Giants for ESPNNewYork.com. Follow him on Twitter. More from ESPNNewYork.com »