Jim Fassel was strolling down the aisle of the Giants charter flight home from Cleveland Sunday evening when he stopped at Row 16 to talk football with linebacker Jessie Armstead.
WR Amani Toomer caught 6 passes for 100 yards and 2 touchdowns against the Browns.
"Did you see what happened to the Colts in Chicago?" Fassel said of Indianapolis' 27-24 upset loss to a Bears team that entered the game with a 1-7 record. "Every week some team that's not supposed to lose goes down."
The Giants escaped that trap. They entered Cleveland Browns Stadium on Sunday as prohibitive favorites to defeat the home team, which had lost six consecutive weeks, had won just twice in nine games and were floundering with the league's worst offense. But just to make sure his players took nothing for granted, Fassel continually reminded his players that anything is possible on any Sunday in the NFL. As Exhibit A, he cited Denver's loss to previously winless Cincinnati two weeks ago.
Message received. After some early sluggishness, the Giants earned a convincing 24-3 victory over Cleveland. It was the Giants fourth victory in a row - their third-longest winning streak under Fassel - and raised their record to 7-2. Coupled with Washington's surprising loss at Arizona - hey, we said the league is unpredictable - the Giants stretched their lead in the NFC East to 1 ? games.
"We have to start establishing things that people don't think we can do," Fassel said. "We're breaking down perceptions of how we're going to play, at home, on the road, division, people we should beat, shouldn't beat. Cleveland came in here ready to play. I thought we were ready to play.
"We got in a groove, got some things going and won the game. I think that was important for us. We had won three, lost two and won three and we had to go past that. I thought the guys stepped up that needed to step up."
No one stepped higher that quarterback Kerry Collins, who threw three touchdown passes for the first time since last season against the Jets. Two of them were caught by Amani Toomer, who caught six passes for 100 yards, his second 100-yard game in as many weeks and the sixth of his career. Ike Hilliard caught the other score.
The Giants played the entire second half without two starters on the offensive line. Center Dusty Zeigler (sprained knee) and right tackle Luke Petitgout (thigh bruise) were hurt in the first half. Zeigler was replaced by Derek Engler, while Petitgout's place was taken by Mike Rosenthal, who was suited up for the first time this season. Chris Ziemann, who would have been the first replacement tackle, was placed on injured reserve last week after tearing a knee ligament in practice.
Defensively, Michael Strahan had two sacks, a pressure that produced an interception, a big stop on a fourth-down run and a team-high seven solo tackles.
It was the Giants largest margin of victory this season and the first time this year that the team scoring first did not win a Giants game.
"We talked all week about not having a letdown and being professional," defensive end Cedric Jones said. "We know we have to step on the field every week and play our best. If we don't, we know we won't win."
One of the highlights of the afternoon for Fassel was the play of Collins. This was a game in which the Giants needed their quarterback to step up and make some big plays. And Collins came through by completing 19 of 31 passes for a season-high 257 yards and touchdown posses of 28 yards to Hilliard and 17 and 32 yards to Toomer.
"We didn't do a whole lot in the first half; they did a good job stopping the run," Collins said. "We talked at halftime and said we were going to have to make plays in the passing game. Once we started making plays in the passing game, the run started to come back a little bit more.
"I haven't really gotten the big touchdowns this year for whatever reason. We got into games where we had a lead and the defense was playing well. But today it was imperative that we made big plays down the field. We were getting a lot of man coverage and a lot of single safety coverage. When that happens you have to be able to throw the ball. (Offensive coordinator) Sean (Payton) realized that and realized we needed to take shots down the field."
Fassel said, "Those were big plays. He can make that special big throw and he made them today. Those were big-time throws, every one of them. And he's making good decisions."
The Giants lone mishap of the game occurred on their second possession, when star rookie Ron Dayne fumbled for the first time in his career. On a second-and-three from the Cleveland 48, Dayne ran to the left and was hit by linebacker Wali Rainer. The ball popped out - perhaps after Dayne hit the ground - and was recovered by former Giant Percy Ellsworth, who returned it 16 yards to the Giants 36.
The fumble ended Giants streaks of 28 possessions and 168 plays without a turnover.
Dave Thomas' pass interference penalty gave Cleveland a first down on the Giants 1-yard line. But from there the defense made a valiant goal-line stand, forcing Doug Pederson to throw two incompletions and stopping Travis Prentice for a 1-yard loss. The Browns had to settle for Phil Dawson's 19-yard field goal and a 3-0 lead.
"It's all about attitude down on the goal line and we kept them out of the end zone," safety Shaun Williams said. "That definitely took some wind out of their sails."
The Giants responded on the ensuing possession with Brad Daluiso's 39-yard field goal. Then Strahan turned the game their way for good. Cleveland coach Chris Palmer elected to try to get a first down on a fourth-and-one from the Giants 18. Prentice took a handoff from Pederson and was immediately dumped by Strahan, who knifed through the line and tackled the back for a 2-yard loss. That robbed the Browns of even more wind.
Cleveland was positively out of breath after Collins led the Giants on a well-crafted 80-yard march that ended with a perfect 28-yard strike to Hilliard, who was running down a seam on the right side. That gave the Giants a 10-3 halftime advantage.
In the third period, Collins concluded a 76-yard march with a 17-yard scoring pass to Toomer, who caught the ball at the 10 and eluded tackle attempts by Corey Fuller and Ellsworth. The play was a duplicate of the touchdown Toomer scored the previous week against Philadelphia.
"It was the exact same play," Collins said. "I don't think it was the same formation, but it was the same play."
Toomer said, "I wanted to really to sell the out route, sell the fade. Once I did that I was pretty open. It was startling to be that open. Once I caught it I felt I got my balance back really quickly. Then I got hit a couple times and kept going to the end zone."
Another big play by Strahan led to the Giants final touchdown. Thanks largely to consecutive Pederson completions totaling 48 yards, the Browns marched to the Giants 18-yard line late in the third period. On second-and-10, Pederson dropped back to find not a receiver, but Strahan bearing down on him at full speed. Pederson, perhaps fearing for his life, hurried a pass to the right toward Aaron Shea. Emmanuel McDaniel grabbed it for his team-leading fourth interception and returned it six yards to the 13.
Then Collins went to work again, leading the Giants on an 87-yard drive that included passes of 26 yards to Toomer and 22 yards to Hilliard. Toomer got the touchdown on a perfectly-thrown, 32-yard pass up the right sideline. Fuller was flagged for pass interference on the play, but still couldn't prevent Toomer from catching the ball.
"It was a straight go route," Toomer said. "It was a great throw. It was right on the money. I had the opportunity to get my body in position and box out the defender, catch it over my outside shoulder and get my feet down. I couldn't ask for any better throw."
That touchdown gave the Giants an insurmountable 24-3 lead with 12:38 left. A little while later, they had officially escaped the trap that Fassel had warned them about all week.
"They came out fighting," linebacker Mike Barrow said. "We avoided the knockout and we stayed together and we made it happen."