The New York Giants left it late, but emerged 27-23 winners over the San Francisco 49ers on Monday night in the NFL's battle of the strugglers.
While everyone is buzzing about next Monday's matchup between the Chiefs and Rams, fans first had to sit through the antithesis of that game — the 1-7 Giants and the 2-7 49ers on "Monday Night Football."
Still, despite their terrible records, the 2-7 49ers and 1-7 Giants played an entertaining game that came down to the final play. Eli Manning led the Giants on a nine-play, 75-yard drive in the closing minutes, ending it with a short touchdown pass to Sterling Shepard with less than a minute remaining.
The 49ers drove back down the field in the final seconds, but quarterback Nick Mullens' pass on the final play sailed out of the end zone.
Here are three thoughts on the Giants' 27-23 victory.
Eli can still excel
Eli Manning has been a ripe target for criticism the past two seasons, and everyone understands the obvious: at age 37, the Giants quarterback is not the same player he was 10 or even three years ago. There were a couple of times on Monday night when Manning didn't look great, notably when he underthrew a wide-open Odell Beckham Jr. on a deep route, the ball only traveling 40-some yards in the air.
Still, when the Giants gave the veteran time, he was efficient hitting short and intermediate routes, finishing 19 of 31 for 188 yards with three touchdowns and zero picks. The Giants offensive line, which had allowed an average of almost four sacks a game, gave up only one against the 49ers. Give Manning time, and he can still get the job done. He's completing more than 68 percent of his passes, a career high, and his quarterback rating is near his career best. Manning won't beat anyone with the deep ball anymore, but he's hardly the Giants' only problem. And as he showed Monday night, he can still be a big asset in crunch time.
Kittle emerging at tight end
Unless you're a 49ers fan, or play in a fantasy league that requires a tight end spot, you might not be familiar with George Kittle. The second-year player out of Iowa has quietly become one of the most productive tight ends in the NFL. Monday night, he had his coming-out party on national TV. He caught nine passes for 83 yards, showing off his great awareness in finding open space, and then in racking up yards and running over people after the catch.
Kittle now has 50 catches and 775 yards on the season. Only Philadelphia's Zach Ertz (75 catches and 789 yards) and the Chiefs' Travis Kelce (57-787) have more in either category among tight ends. And Kittle's 15.5 yards per catch figure is more fitting for a speed-burner wide receiver than a tight end. If Kittle played on a better team, he would probably already be a well-known entity; if he keeps putting up numbers like that, he'll soon become one no matter how the 49ers fare.
A matter of perspective
Sure, 2018 has not gone as planned for either New York or San Francisco. Yet recall how, before the season, the 49ers were a trendy pick to make the playoffs, behind the leadership of quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo. Those hopes faded when Garoppolo went down with a season-ending torn ACL in Week 3. Likewise, the Giants were expected to finish with anywhere from seven to nine victories. Not a great season, but not one that begs for a rebuilding project.
So where do the Giants and 49ers go from here? Both teams have several pieces to build around. For the Giants, Saquon Barkley and Beckham — who had four catches for 73 yards and two touchdowns against the 49ers — match up with any team's RB/WR combo. New York needs a franchise quarterback of the future and the O line needs some upgrades, but those issues can be addressed through the draft or free agency.
For the 49ers, Garoppolo will return, and he's got weapons in Kittle, running back Matt Breida (132 combined yards and two touchdowns Monday night) and wide receiver Marquise Goodwin. It's not like the 49ers need to adopt the same stance as the 1-8 Raiders across the bay, who are offloading stars in a total rebuild. Both the 49ers and Giants are down this season, but better days may not be as far off as their records indicate.