EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. — When the New York Giants made their run to the Super Bowl a year ago, a 99-yard touchdown catch and run by Victor Cruz against the Jets seemed to be the ignition point.
It was a play that woke up an inconsistent team and turned it into a power.
If the 52-27 win over the New Orleans Saints on Sunday turns out to be the victory that gets the Giants (8-5) going again, everyone is going to point to rookie David Wilson’s 97-yard kickoff return for a touchdown as the play that sparked the run.
Wilson re-energized the Giants with his electrifying run just 15 seconds after New Orleans returned an interception for an early score, and he didn’t stop there. The first-round pick from Virginia Tech also ran for 100 yards and two more scores and piled up a team-record 327 all-purpose yards in a breakout performance that allowed New York to maintain a one-game lead over Washington and Dallas in the NFC East with three games to play.
“He made some huge plays today when we needed it the most and some were unexpected,” said Cruz, who added eight catches for 121 yards and a touchdown. “We would watch him in practice just do amazing things, whether it be breaking plays or making some cuts that we only see guys that are Hall of Famers make. He’s definitely the most athletic on the team and he made some big plays today.”
It’s been a long time coming. Wilson showed potential in training camp but fumbled in Dallas territory in the season opener and spent much of the last two months in Tom Coughlin’s doghouse. His role is probably going to pick up with Ahmad Bradshaw now iffy with an injury to his left knee.
“To come up and have a breakout game like this is an excellent feeling,” said Wilson, who became the first NFL player to have 200 yards in kickoff returns and 100 yards rushing in a game. “You want to have a good game every game. I went out there and my teammates went out there and we played great.”
Wilson wasn’t the only one. Eli Manning chipped in with four touchdown passes. The defense forced four turnovers by New Orleans (5-8), including two interceptions by Stevie Brown, and the kickoff return team accounted for a team-record 287 yards.
“A win is always good and a win is always a confidence booster and for us to go out there and play a full, dominant game with all three phases of the game, I think that speaks volumes for this team and what direction we’re headed,” safety Antrel Rolle said.
The performance came hours after Washington and Dallas rallied to win, requiring New York to win to stay in first place.
The loss all but ended the playoff hopes of Drew Brees and the Saints (5-8), who dropped their third straight game and had a three-game winning streak against the Giants snapped.
“We’ve shown the resolve and the resiliency to never give up,” Saints cornerback Jabari Greer said. “We’re not going to go that. This is football and sometimes you fall down. We fell down hard today. We’re going to fight and never give up.”
Manning had TD passes of 6 yards to Martellus Bennett, 5 yards to Domenik Hixon, 25 yards to Hakeem Nicks and 10 yards to Cruz. Wilson scored on runs of 6 and 52 yards and hit 100 yards on only 13 carries for the biggest day of his short career.
The 52 points are the most for the Giants since scoring 55 against Green Bay in 1986. It also was the most given up by New Orleans, whose defense is run by former New York coordinator Steve Spagnuolo.
“I wouldn’t say we’re fragile,” said linebacker Jonathan Vilma, whose fate for the balance of the season might be decided Tuesday when former Commissioner Paul Tagliabue hands down a decision on his Bountygate suspension appeal. “I wouldn’t know what to call it. We’re accustomed to finding ways to win. This year, we’re just not good enough to overcome a lot of the mistakes. We have to be more conscious in games and more detail oriented in practice about how we handle our business on Sundays.”
Darren Sproles scored on a 13-yard run and caught a 9-yard touchdown pass from Brees late in the third quarter, cutting the Giants’ lead to 35-27.
However, Jerrel Jernigan returned the ensuing kickoff 60 yards to set up Manning’s touchdown pass to Cruz. New York iced the game when Brown went 70 yards with his second pick to set up Lawrence Tynes’ 39-yard field goal.
The afternoon seemed to take a bad turn for New York when Dallas rallied for a 20-19 win over Cincinnati and Washington beat Baltimore 31-28 in overtime despite losing Robert Griffin III to a knee injury. Elbert Mack then intercepted Manning in the left flat and returned it 73 yards to give the Saints a 7-0 lead.
Wilson turned it all around in a mad dash.
“Our concern for the next three weeks is the New York Giants and that’s all we can focus on,” said Manning, who completed 22 of 35 for 259 yards.
Brees, who had never lost to the Giants and had eight TD passes and no interceptions in the last two games, finished 26 of 43 for 354 yards.
NOTES: Hixon held the Giants single-season record for all-purposes yards at 303 in 2009. … Wilson also set a single-season record for kickoff return yards with 1,301 yards. … Brown has broken the Giants single-season record for interception return yards with 259 on seven interceptions. The old mark of 251 was set by Dick Lynch and Emlen Tunnell. … Patrick Robinson had the Saints’ other interception of Manning. Joseph Morgan has two catches for 106 yards for New Orleans.