EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. — The stadium was rocking, and the possibilities for the New York Giants were delicious.
They'd just tied the Green Bay Packers — yes, the undefeated, defending champion Packers — with 58 seconds remaining Sunday night. Their only competition for the NFC East title, the Cowboys, had lost at Arizona.
A Giants victory would erase their deficit behind Dallas, and would snap Green Bay's winning streak at 17, 11 this season. Just stop Aaron Rodgers and the Packers' dynamic offense, get the game to overtime, and perhaps pull off a season-defining win.
Instead, Rodgers marched his team 68 yards in five plays, Mason Crosby kicked a 31-yard field goal as time expired, and the Packers won 38-35, clinching a playoff berth.
"When you get a chance to knock out the champ, you got to knock him out," defensive end Justin Tuck said. "You can't let them hang around and fight off the ropes.
"You've got to knock him out. There's a reason they've won 18 straight."
And there are lots of reasons the Giants (6-6) have lost four in a row, from inconsistent offense to a porous secondary to a difficult schedule that doesn't get any easier with a trip to Dallas next Sunday — and concludes on New Year's Day with the Cowboys at the Meadowlands.
Still, one game in back of the Cowboys and having pushed the Packers (12-0) to the limit, the Giants shouldn't be hanging their heads.
"A loss is a loss, no matter how it comes. It's just a better feeling than the previous one (Saints)," Tuck said, referring to a 49-24 rout in New Orleans last Monday night. "As long as we play with passion, I don't see why we can't be in the playoffs. But we've got a lot of work to do before we talk about that. I'm sick to my stomach, but a win takes all that away. I just hope all my teammates feel the same way."
Eli Manning does.
"We did some really good things, and they're the best team in football right now," Manning said. "I think we have to try to take something from this game, take some momentum into these next games."
Coincidentally, New York fell 38-35 to unbeaten New England in 2007 season finale, then beat the Patriots in the Super Bowl.
"Hopefully, we can take that same approach," Manning said.
Rodgers hit three passes of more than 18 yards on the drive in the final 58 seconds. That came after New York tied the game on Eli Manning's 2-yard touchdown pass to Hakeem Nicks and a 2-point conversion run by D.J. Ware.
However, Rodgers, who threw four touchdown passes, wasn't going to settle for overtime after a touchback on the ensuing kickoff.
On first down, he hit Jermichael Finley just over the outstretched hands of rookie linebacker Jacquian Williams and the tight end rumbled 24 yards up the right sideline.
A 24-yard pass to Jordy Nelson down the left sideline moved the ball to the New York 29. An 18-yard pass to Greg Jennings two plays later got the ball to the 12.
Green Bay called time out with 3 seconds to go, and Crosby delivered.
Rodgers, who was harassed by the Giants' front and sacked three times, finished 28 of 46 for 369 yards. He threw touchdown passes of 7 and 13 yards to Donald Driver, 20 to Jennings and 12 to Finley.
Linebacker Clay Matthews also returned an interception 38 yards for a score in the second quarter.
Manning finished 23 of 40 for 347 yards. He had an early 67-yard touchdown pass to Travis Beckum and touchdown tosses of 4 and 2 yards to Nicks. Brandon Jacobs scored on a 1-yard run after a rare interception of Rodgers, and Lawrence Tynes kicked two field goals, with a 50-yarder in the fourth quarter getting New York within 28-27.
Rodgers hooked up with Driver on a 7-yard TD with 3:34 to go to push the lead to 35-27.
However, Manning hit tight end Jake Ballard on two 15-yard passes and connected with Victor Cruz for 22 yards to set up the tying score that New York thought would send the game to OT.
Rodgers had other ideas, and the Packers continued their run at trying to match Miami's perfect season in 1972.
It's not surprising New York gave them a game. The Giants ended the Denver Broncos' perfect season at 11 games in 1998 and they knocked off the Patriots in the Super Bowl in February 2008 when Tom Brady and company were a game from perfection.
The Giants let the Packers know early they were going to be in for a battle this week.
Manning and Beckum, who had one catch all season, combined on a 67-yard catch and weaving run on the third play of the game.
Rodgers tied the game with a 12-yard TD pass to Finley on Green Bay's second possession, only to see New York take the lead on a 38-yard field goal by Tynes.
New York seemed to be in control until Manning made a mistake on a play-action pass on the first play of the second quarter. With his primary receiver covered, Manning threw a sideline pass to Ahmad Bradshaw in front of the Packers bench. Matthews jumped the route and returned it 38 yards for a touchdown and a 14-10 lead.
Rodgers had been intercepted four times all season, but linebacker Chase Blackburn, signed on Wednesday, picked him off at the Green Bay 21 and returned the ball to the 12. Two plays later, Brandon Jacobs plowed in from the 1 to give New York a 17-14 edge.
Rodgers atoned for the error on the next series, driving the Packers 80 yards in 11 plays with the biggest play an 11-yard scramble on third-and-10 from the New York 43. Rodgers capped the march with a 13-yard, third-down touchdown pass to a wide-open Donald Driver.
Rodgers pushed the lead to 28-17 on the opening series of the second half with his fist TD pass to Driver, but Manning got New York back in the game later in the quarter with his first TD to Nicks.