The Giants appeared to be finished. They had fallen behind the 49ers, 20-10, in the third quarter and were struggling to match the effort of a young San Francisco team that did not seem to be aware that it was engaged in a race to the bottom of the N.F.L.
But something clicked at that point for the previously hapless Giants, as Eli Manning and the offense came alive. Manning put together two second-half touchdown drives — the second one finding the end zone with less than a minute left — for a 27-23 victory that gave the visiting Giants a second win and sent Nick Mullens and the 49ers back to the drawing board.
To put it mildly, Mullens’s second game under center for San Francisco was not nearly as magical as his first. He followed what was the finest debut by a quarterback in 49ers history with a performance in which he repeatedly looked flustered, throwing two interceptions, and let a big second-half lead slip away. As Mullens faltered, Manning, who has dealt with so much criticism over the last two years, was ready to pounce.
There was little mystery around either team’s strategy in the game, which was played at Santa Clara’s Levi’s Stadium despite poor air quality as a result of California’s wildfires. Mullens and the 49ers (2-8) were looking for George Kittle or Marquise Goodwin on nearly every pass play; otherwise, they were feeding the ball to running back Matt Breida. The Giants (2-7) were running the ball aggressively with Saquon Barkley — and when they suddenly had a shot at the comeback, it was Odell Beckham Jr. and Evan Engram who got them there.
Matt Breida hauled in a scoring pass from Nick Mullens to put the 49ers up by 10 points in the third quarter.CreditKyle Terada/USA Today Sports, via Reuters
Manning, who once hosted Mullens at a quarterback camp, finished the day having completed 19 of 31 passes for 188 yards and three touchdowns. He had spent most of the game dinking and dunking his way down the field, repeatedly stalling drives. But he managed to find Beckham for two touchdowns, and with 53 seconds remaining and the Giants down by 3, he capped a nine-play, 75-yard drive with a 3-yard throw to Sterling Shepard in the end zone.
It was Manning’s 36th game-winning drive in the fourth quarter or overtime, and it came in a game in which his team finally seemed to acknowledge that they would need to force the issue more with Barkley. Barkley, a rookie out of Penn State who entered Monday never having recorded more than 18 rushes, had 20 carries for 67 yards and caught four passes for 33 yards, including a 23-yard catch on the Giants’ final drive that helped set up Shepard’s touchdown.
That the game was even competitive between Manning, a two-time Super Bowl M.V.P., and Mullens, a second-year player who was on a practice squad at the start of the season, could be considered something of a victory for the 49ers quarterback. He showed much of what had made him a hit in his first game, connecting with George Kittle nine times for 83 yards and Goodwin four times for 69 yards. Even his two interceptions, the first two of his professional career, came off deflections.
Even after Shepard’s score, Mullens had one final shot at a win. A pass to Goodwin got San Francisco to the Giants’ 21 with one second left. Mullens heaved a pass into the end zone but watched the ball fall to the ground, well out of the reach of any receiver, as time expired.
The game appeared to underscore the fact that neither team was content to play for a better draft pick, a strategy that the Oakland Raiders (1-8) have seemingly embraced. The Giants will try to get a second straight win when they host the struggling Tampa Bay Buccaneers next week. San Francisco, after a bye week, will get their shot against Tampa Bay in Week 12.