Whoever made those odious claims will have to issue a retraction, pronto, because the Giants have won the biggest game of the season. On Sunday, they marched into FedExField and delivered a taut and thrilling 9-7 triumph over the Redskins, who had been the overwhelming preseason favorite to win the NFC East.
The victory, coupled with Philadelphia's last-second loss to Tennessee, vaulted the 9-4 Giants into sole possession of first place in the NFC East. The Giants can clinch the division title and secure a home playoff game by winning their last three games: Pittsburgh at home next week, followed by a game in Dallas and the season-finale against Jacksonville in Giants Stadium.
If the season ended today, the Giants would be the NFC's second-seeded team behind Minnesota and would have a first round playoff bye.
The slumping Redskins lost for the fourth time in five games and fell to 7-6.
Brad Daluiso was responsible for all of the Giants scoring, kicking field goals of 46, 27 and 28 yards. But it was Washington's kicker, 44-year-old Eddie Murray, who ultimately decided the game. His 49-yard game-winning field goal attempt fell just short with 50 seconds remaining. Murray's 39-yard try in the second period had clanged off the left upright.
"I've been at this a long time, and I don't think I've ever gone on the road with a group of guys who had more determination and more of a belief factor," said Giants head coach Jim Fassel, who absorbed all of the team's late-season pressure by guaranteeing a playoff victory and was rewarded with a game ball from his players Sunday. "I'm extremely proud of the effort and the positive energy that was put out. These guys gave me everything they had. That was huge."
"It makes it a lot sweeter because there's been a lot of talk about how we can't win the big games," quarterback Kerry Collins said. "I think a lot of people took it personally and really wanted to come out and win a game - not just play hard. The whole game on the sideline I felt we were going to win that game, regardless of what happened and the circumstances. That kind of belief and that kind of will goes a long way."
The Giants improved to 6-1 on the road - the first time they've won six games away from home since the 1990 Super Bowl champions went 6-2. They are 6-1 in the NFC East. The Giants also ended a four-game losing streak to the Redskins and won in Washington for the first time since 1995. In addition, they became the last NFL team this season to play a game decided by less than five points.
As they were reminded Sunday, few feelings in football can match a hard-fought, close victory over a hated division rival on the road - particularly after all the criticism the Giants were subjected to after playing so poorly in their four losses.
"This is really the first time we've come down here in a must-win situation and it turned out great," said tight end Howard Cross, the senior Giant with 12 years of service. "For a victory during the season, this was huge. We fought our way through and we stayed together the whole time. That was big."
"It's definitely a monkey of our backs," said safety Sam Garnes, who had his first interception of the season. "It's a big win for our organization. A lot of things have been said about us and we responded well."
This was a quintessential team victory, but special kudos go to the defense, which dominated the Redskins for the vast majority of the game. The Redskins didn't score a point until 4:48 remained in the final period, when quarterback Jeff George - who replaced an ineffective Brad Johnson - completed a 5-yard touchdown pass to Irving Fryar. The score should not have counted because the play clock expired. But the officials never noticed.
The Redskins were limited to 29 yards rushing. Washington gained the majority of its yardage - 162 of 290 total yards - in the fourth period, which began with the Giants holding a 9-0 lead.
Limiting Washington to seven points was exceptionally satisfying to the defense, because in the second game of the 1999 season, the Redskins marched into Giants Stadium and humiliated the home defense in a 50-21 triumph. It took almost 15 months, but the Giants have extracted their revenge.
"As offensively powered as they are, it's very gratifying to walk out of here holding them to seven points," cornerback Jason Sehorn said. "As a defensive unit, we wanted the goose egg. That would have been more gratifying. But a win is a win."
They had to fight like mad to get the victory after George put the Redskins back in the game, leading them on a huge 97-yard, 10-play drive to their lone score. The biggest play on the march was a 45-yard pass from George to James Thrash, who got behind safety Shaun Williams. The Giants were caught with just 10 players on the field for the play. Thrash moved the ball to the five. After two incompletions, George rolled right and fired a strike to Fryar, who had established position just inside the goal line.
After the Giants were forced to punt, the Redskins took possession at their own 14 with 2:39 left. Three George completions advanced the ball to the Giants 35. On first down, George threw a 19-yard pass to Thrash, who did not have total control as he went down low to get the ball. The officials originally ruled it a catch, putting Washington on the 16-yard line with 1:26 left and in perfect position for Murray to be a hero.
But replay official Bill McCabe called for a review of the play, which is at his discretion in the final two minutes of each half. After studying the pass, he ruled that Thrash had not caught the ball. Referee Ed Hochuli concurred, and the reversal pushed the Redskins back to the 35.
"I couldn't tell from the field (if it was a catch or not)," Fassel said. "(Secondary coach) Johnny Lynn (upstairs in the coaches booth) said, `that is not a completed pass.' He said, `they're going to take this away.'"
And they did.
Washington gained just five yards in two plays before Washington coach Norv Turner sent Murray on to try to win the game. But the kick by Murray - who missed a game-tying 44-yard attempt in the waning moments against Philadelphia last week - fell short.
The Giants seemed to hurt themselves with a critical mistake early in the fourth period when tight end Dan Campbell fumbled after an 11-yard pass. Shawn Barber recovered for Washington at the Giants 31. But three plays later, Emmanuel McDaniel made his second big play of the afternoon, intercepting a Johnson pass at the 12 and returning it to the 29. It was McDaniel's team-leading fifth interception.
"We were not going to be denied," Fassel said. "We're going to find a way to win, no matter what happens."
Daluiso had extended the Giants lead to 9-0 with a 28-yard field goal with 6:18 remaining in the third period.
Before the kick, the Giants traveled 21 yards in six plays, a drive set up by Garnes' initial interception of the season. Garnes took advantage of a terrific play by McDaniel, the nickel corner who blitzed and hit Johnson as he released the ball. Garnes plucked the floater out of the air and returned it to the Washington 32.
The Giants picked up a first down at the 20 and needed just a yard for another one when Jim Fassel elected to kick the field goal from the 11-yard line.
Daluiso's field goals of 46 and 27 yards gave the Giants a 6-0 lead at the end of a closely contested first half. The Giants engineered drives of 18 and 44 yards to move into position for Daluiso. It was the fifth time this season, and the second week in a row, that the Giants had held their opponent scoreless in the first half.
After the Giants went up by nine points, Washington fought furiously to get back into the game. They pulled within two points and fell a few feet short of stealing the win. But it was the Giants who left here with a triumph to savor.
"This ranks up there with the biggest regular season victories I've had," said guard Glenn Parker, who played in four Super Bowls with the Buffalo Bulls. "So many times I've been on teams where we were playing to lock it up. But in this one we were fighting for our lives. It's a good feeling.
"It's fantastic. Everybody had made a statement that we hadn't been able to win the big one, even though we had beaten Philly twice. So to beat someone other than Philly in a big game at their own place in a must-win situation feels great."
If they keep winning, the feeling can only get better.