Maybe Jim Fassel should go out on a limb every week.
DT Keith Hamilton led the Giants defense with 7 tackles and 3 sacks. Last Wednesday, the Giants coach declared unequivocally that the Giants are going to the playoffs. Sunday night, the Giants made Fassel look like a genius - and appeared to be very much postseason worthy - as they routed the Arizona Cardinals and former Giants quarterback Dave Brown, 31-7, in Sun Devil Stadium.
Badly in need of a victory, the Giants put together one of the most dominating performances of the four-year Fassel era. It was their third-largest victory margin under Fassel and their biggest scoring advantage in a road game with Fassel on the sideline. The previous high had been 21 points, achieved in a 24-3 triumph at Cleveland on Nov. 5.
More importantly, the victory ended the Giants two-game losing streak and improved their record to 8-4. With four games remaining, the Giants have exceeded last season's victory total of seven. They are in sole possession of second place in the NFC East, a half-game behind division leader Philadelphia and one game ahead of the Washington Redskins, whom they visit for a huge game next week in FedEx Field.
Arizona fell to 3-9.
"There wasn't a lot of pressure on us," running back Tiki Barber said. "Jim put it all on himself. We have to worry about winning. Playing consistent and winning and making that a pattern. This was the first step of four more."
"This team's attitude was solid," Fassel said. "We could have come out here in a lot of different ways and looked at these guys differently. But I was proud of the way they came out and their focus and the way they played."
In addition to Fassel's bold prediction, a derogatory statement by an outside observer helped inspire the Giants.
"When coach Fassel made that challenge for us I think it lit a fire in a lot of us," said defensive tackle Keith Hamilton, who led the defensive charge with three sacks. "And I'll tell you what really got me. I was watching a pre-game show in my hotel room and one of those guys said, `the Giants are a soft team.' That really lit a fire under me."
All of his teammates played as if they had been similarly burned.
The Giants followed the formula that has been so successful in their victories this season. They jumped out to leads of 14-0 at halftime and 21-0 in the third period. The Giants are 7-0 this season when they score first. They piled up the rushing yards, finishing with 146. They are 8-1 when they rush for more than 100 yards. The Giants forced four turnovers and coughed it up just once. They are 5-0 when the turnover differential is in their favor. Kerry Collins played a solid, efficient game. The defense stood tall throughout.
The Giants also added some flare to their attack, using a flea-flicker and a pair of Toomer reverses, one that resulted in a touchdown.
Dan Campbell scored a touchdown on a pass from Collins for the first score. Then Ron Dayne, Tiki Barber and Amani Toomer - yes, Toomer - scored on the ground. Ironically, it was the fifth touchdown of the season for each.
The Giants defense dominated the game, forcing three fumbles and an interception and battering the beleaguered Brown all night. He as sacked five times (and his late-game replacement, Chris Greisen once) and roughing him up virtually every time he dropped back to pass. Brown (18 of 36 for 192 yards) played in place of Arizona starter Jake Plummer, who missed the game with an assortment of injuries.
"Those guys were playing," Fassel said of his defensive linemen. "We didn't have to bring a lot of folks, although we did bring people to disrupt him. I thought we improved in all the areas I wanted to see. We had a better pass rush and we had tighter coverage on people."
"We played smart," Hamilton said. "We didn't make the mistakes that we made in the previous weeks. We can be a good football team. We just have to play solid. We're not a flashy team."
One of the best signs for the Giants was the fine play of the special teams, which had been under fire after last week's meltdown against the Detroit Lions.
Michael Pittman scored Arizona's only touchdown, in the third period.
The Giants won their NFL-best 27th game in a row when leading after three periods. They were greatly helped by an Arizona team that was simply inept most of the night. The Cardinals committed 12 penalties, including several that kept Giants drives moving, converted just two of 15 third and fourth-down conversion opportunities and had trouble tackling.
The game was pretty much decided in the opening moments. After stopping the Cardinals on three plays immediately after the opening kickoff, the Giants offense crafted an impressive drive that resulted in Collins' 5-yard touchdown pass to tight end Campbell and a 7-0 lead just 5:28 into the game. The play capped a 9-play, 65-yard drive that featured four Collins completions in five attempts for 43 yards -three of them to Joe Jurevicius, who started at flanker in place of the injured Ike Hilliard.
Three consecutive catches by Jurevicius totaling 38 yards gave the Giants a first down on Arizona's 25-yard line. Dayne picked up 20 yards on three carries before Collins executed a perfect play-action fake, then flipped a short pass to Campbell, who caught the ball in isolation at the 4-yard line and stepped into the end zone for his third touchdown of the season - on just six catches.
It was the first time the Giants scored a touchdown - or a point of any kind - on their opening possession since the victory over the Bears on Sept. 17, a span of nine games.
"That was huge," Barber said. "To go out and score on the first drive set the tone of the game. That's what we needed in this game."
"The first drive was certainly an indication of the way we were playing offensively," said Collins, who completed 20 of 30 passes for 232 yards and did not throw an interception. "I thought we were playing fast and quick and were playing with confidence and I think we came out and set the tone from the start."
The Giants, who scored in every period, extended their lead to 14-0 with 10:15 left in the second period when Dayne powered his way into the end zone from two yards out. The score capped an 11-play, 72-yard drive that took 5:32 to complete. Collins was exceptionally sharp on the march, completing five of six passes for 61 yards. The most notable of those passes was a 21-yard to Jurevicius on a flea-flicker. On the play, Collins handed the ball to Barber, who tossed it back to Collins, who hit an uncovered Jurevicius on the left sideline. The play advanced the Giants to the Cards 22-yard line. Five plays later, Dayne scored.
Arizona's best play in the first half was the ill-advised Giants penalty. Shaun Williams' personal foul for a late hit on an incomplete third-down pass kept alive a Cardinals drive that result in their deepest penetration of the half, to the Giants 14-yard line. But the threat ended when Ryan Phillips forced a Brown fumble that was recovered by Michael Strahan, the third time this season he has pounced on a fumble. He later recovered another fumble. Hamilton's 15-yard facemask penalty gave the Cards another 15 yards later in the quarter.
The Giants had increased their advantage to 21-0 on Barber's 23-yard run with 6:24 remaining in the third period. Arizona continued to hurt itself with self-inflicted wounds, committing two harmful penalties that aided the Giants seven-play, 68-yard drive.
The first infraction was particularly galling to the Cards - a holding call on cornerback Corey Chavous on what would have been a fourth-down incompletion. That gave the Giants an automatic first down. On the next play, linebacker Ray Thompson was flagged for illegal use of hands, another 5-yard penalty that gave the Giants a first down on the 23-yard line. On the next play, Barber took a handoff from Collins and stepped to his right. Finding no opening, he reversed field. A block by Jurevicius sprung him near the left sideline and Barber raced untouched into the end zone.
The Giants defense continually thwarted Arizona's sputtering offense. The D got a key stop early in the third period, when the Cardinals elected to try for a first down on fourth-and-five from the Giants 29. But the Cards never had a chance, as Brown was smothered and sacked by Hamilton, forcing Arizona to relinquish the ball.
Arizona, who had been moribund offensively all night, finally got on the scoreboard with 2:01 left in the first half, thanks to a great effort by running back Pittman, who scored on a 36-yard pass from Brown. Pittman caught a screen pass to the left side at the 42, got a terrific block by Chris Dishman on Dave Thomas, sidestepped Strahan's tackle attempt at the 10 and willed his way into the end zone.
The Cardinals drove 88 yards in nine plays and 4:23 to the score, including a 24-yards pass from Brown to Frank Sanders that moved Arizona into Giants territory. All night, that had been an area of doom for the home team. But this time they capitalized for their first score.
But the Giants weren't through. With 10:06 left in the game, Toomer, who had gained 12 yards on his first rushing attempt, scored on a 19-yard end around to cap an 80-yard, 12-play drive. It was fitting that the split end got the touchdown, because he had a big 18-yard catch over the middle on the drive.
Why the razzle-dazzle?
"We have them in every week," Collins said. "We got in situations where we wanted to use them. I like that and everyone else likes it."
"We were aggressive today," Toomer said. "We were going to come out and attack. We pulled out all the stops. Well, not all of them."
Brad Daluiso's 25-yard field goal ended the scoring.
And the Giants, at least for one night, seemed certain to fulfill Fassel's prophesy.
"I thought they took to heart everything that I said," Fassel said. "I have never questioned this team. I was interested to see how we would come out and play."
He certainly had to enjoy what he saw.