Football fans converged Sunday on East Rutherford to watch the Giants battle the Steelers at MetLife Stadium, just a couple miles from where a massive tidal surge brought on by Hurricane Sandy submerged the towns of Moonachie, Little Ferry and Carlstadt just six days earlier.
More than 80,000 people turned out for the afternoon contest, overcoming the devastation wrought earlier in the week by Sandy's vicious winds and pelting rain that ripped apart homes, toppled trees and power lines, and left millions -- including many Giants players -- cold and in the dark for most, if not all of the week.
Nicole Johnson, a Nassau County police officer, was one such fan.
As of game time, Johnson and her husband had yet to have power restored at their Valley Stream, N.Y. home.
“The house is cold,” said Johnson, who’s taken their toddler to sleep at her sister’s heated home in Kew Gardens, Queens every night this week. “It’s difficult but we know there’s people in worse situations than us. People who lost everything.”
Despite the circumstances, Johnson, decked out in Giants jersey, said she never considered skipping the game.
“Our spirits have been down,” she said. “We decided to go because it makes us feel better. We’re Giants fans so we have to support them.”
Kevin Marzolla, who stayed with a family friend in Ridgewood last week after losing power at his Mahwah home, said he’d been looking forward to the Giants game all week.
“It was a good distraction for four hours to get out of the house,” he said.
While the game may have served as a temporary distraction from the hurricane, Sandy’s palpable presence at the stadium was difficult to escape.
Community Food Bank of New Jersey volunteers stood near turnstiles collecting donations of food and money for storm sufferers, the NFL held a moment of silence for hurricane victims prior to the National Anthem and throughout the game jumbotron displays reminded fans to text $10 donations to the Red Cross.
Through three quarters Sunday, the Giants looked poised to deliver a much-needed pick-me-up to storm-battered Big Blue fans after a week filled with devastation, misleading power restoration estimates and frustration at the pump.
But through a combination of ineffective offense and poor tackling, the Giants dealt metropolitan area residents the latest in a string of discouraging letdowns, squandering a 10-point advantage in the game’s final 15 minutes to drop a 24-20 heartbreaker to the Pittsburgh Steelers.
“This was a week where we really wanted to step up for the people who were hit by the hurricane and we didn’t do that,” said second-year linebacker Mark Herzlich, who made his first start of the season Sunday. “Instead of putting a smile on their faces for three hours, we kind of let them down.”
Head coach Tom Coughlin said it was as disappointing a loss as the team had suffered in a long time.
“We wanted emotionally so badly to win the game for obvious reasons, for all our neighbors who are struggling and who need some type of inspiration,” he said. “Of course, we didn’t provide it for them.”
The Steelers got on the board first when quarterback Ben Roethlisberger found a toe-tapping Emmanuel Sanders in the back of the end zone early in the second quarter, but the Giants stormed back with two quick touchdowns of their own and went into the half leading, 14-10.
New York stretched the lead to 20-10 on a pair of Lawrence Tynes field goals in the third quarter before the wheels fell off.
On the second play of the fourth quarter, Steelers’ speedster Mike Wallace took a short pass 51 yards down the sideline to paydirt to cut the Giants’ lead to three. Then, two possessions later, Roethlisberger engineered a nine-play, 51-yard drive that culminated in a one-yard touchdown burst by bruising back Isaac Redman that put the Steelers on top to stay.
The Giants never threatened. Eli Manning and the sputtering offense posted three consecutive three-and-outs on its final three possessions and then failed to stop the Steelers on a crucial third-down that enabled the Black and Gold to run out the clock and leave Met Life with a 24-20 victory.
After the game, wide receiver Victor Cruz said the loss was particularly disappointing because the team had hoped to be a catalyst for the area’s post-Sandy recovery.
“It’s a little disappointing definitely for the fans who live and die with us…and looked at our game as a way of relief and as a way of hope to move forward from Hurricane Sandy,” he said. “It’s just unfortunate we couldn’t get it done for them.”
Cruz, a Paterson native, said he wasn’t surprised by the 80,000-plus fans, many seriously affected by the storm, who came out to support the team in spite of the circumstances.
“I know Giants fans and they’re going to make it to this game and support their team no matter what,” he said.
In post-game interviews, Giants’ players refused to blame the hurricane for their anemic performance, but it was clear Sandy wasn’t far from some of their minds.
“It was a tough week,” said tight end Martellus Bennett, who like most of the team, lost power and heat at his home this week. “And it’s even tougher to lose a game, and you have to lay in the dark in the cold, with no lights.”
When asked what he'd do to try and restore some sense of normalcy going forward, Bennett, a 6-foot-6-inch, 265-pound professional athlete, answered like any other metropolitan area resident hit by Sandy.
“Call [PSEG],” he said. "I’m just doing the same thing everybody else is doing right now, trying to get the lights back on and get in a normal routine. The wife starts school this week."
The Giants, now 6-3, will try to get the offense clicking again next Sunday when the team heads to Cincinnati to play a free-falling Bengals team. Kickoff is at 1 p.m.