The Giants impressive 7-2 start seems like ancient history as their season makes the turn toward the finish line.
It can't get much worse for them than it did Sunday. They put up a horrible all-around performance in what was perhaps the season's pivotal game. They fell behind 28-0 to the Detroit Lions, a team not on anybody's list of favorites to reach the Super Bowl. The Giants did so at home, no less. And they dropped out of first place.
The end result was a shocking, embarrassing 31-21 loss to the Lions in appropriately gloomy Giants Stadium.
The Giants second straight lopsided home defeat - they fell to St. Louis last week, 38-24 - dropped them to 7-4 and scrambling for their playoff lives. They fell a half-game behind Philadelphia in the NFC East race after the Eagles crushed Arizona, 34-9. Washington can pull into a second place tie with the Giants with a victory Monday night in St. Louis.
"I wouldn't want to be in the coach's position, trying to put his finger on what happened and why it happened," cornerback Jason Sehorn said. "These are two games where we played terrible, everywhere. We made way too many mistakes to beat anybody. I don't care who the team is on the other side of the football field.
"Suddenly we're melting. Maybe at 10 weeks someone's got us figured out. I don't know."
Detroit certainly had the answers. The Lions, who are 2-0 under new coach Gary Moeller, are also 7-4 and with a tiebreaker advantage over the Giants.
Of course, what the competition does will make no difference if the Giants aren't far superior to the performance they put on Sunday. They play their next two games on the road, at Arizona and at Washington.
"We went out and we did not play worth a damn in any phase of the game," coach Jim Fassel said. "You can give us F's in every one of them, including coaching."
"We went out there with our heads up our butt," quarterback Kerry Collins said. "You looked up at the scoreboard … and it was 28-0, and you can't believe you're in a game like that. But we did it to ourselves."
Oh, yes they did. They did it with four turnovers, including three fumbles and a Collins interception that led to the first Detroit touchdown. They did it with an abysmal performance by the special teams in the second period. And they did it with a defense that made struggling quarterback Charlie Batch look like Troy Aikman in his prime.
Batch, who entered the game as the NFC's lowest-rated quarterback, completed 20 of 32 passes for 225 yards and three touchdowns against a Giants secondary that has allowed seven aerial scores in two weeks. Trent Green threw for four touchdowns for the Rams last week.
James Stewart scored on a 1-yard run and Jason Hanson added a late field goal to wrap up the Detroit scoring.
Collins threw for a career-high 350 yards and two touchdowns and ran for another score, but put up most of his numbers after the Giants were hopelessly behind.
The Giants, who were so confident and secure after a four-game winning streak boosted them to 7-2, are now in a treacherous position.
"I'm telling you, we're in dire straits," tackle Lomas Brown said. "I don't care whether anybody agrees with me or not. We're in dire straits. And we need to get this fixed."
"I'm shocked that we lost like that," safety San Garnes said. "I'm shocked that they jumped out in front of us like that. We didn't come out and make the plays we needed to. We didn't do well on third down (the Lions succeeded on nine of 17 chances). We had a chance to hold them to field goals and we didn't do it. We didn't think Detroit was going to be able to come in and put 31 points on the board."
Oh, but they did. Made it look easy, in fact. Of course Detroit had help from the Giants, who were far too generous in their role as hosts.
The Lions outscored the Giants in the second period, 21-0, but the carnage actually began in the opening quarter when Kurt Schulz intercepted a Collins pass at the Detroit 15-yard line and returned it to the 29. It was Schulz's seventh interception of the season and the Lions' 19th.
Less than six minutes later, the Lions took a 7-0 lead when Batch flipped a 5-yard touchdown pass to tight end Walter Rasby, who scored for the first time this season. The touchdown completed a 13-play, 71-yard drive that began with a 12-yard catch by Rasby, who had only three receptions entering the game. It continued thanks to three successful third down conversions by Detroit, including two of seven yards or more.
On third-and-seven from the Giants 32, Batch connected on a bullet to the left sideline to Morton, who got two steps on Jason Sehorn. When the Lions faced a third-and-nine at the 16, Batch again found Morton, this time on the right side for an 11-yard gain. On the next play, the Lions got the Giants defense moving to the right with a well-executed play-action fake. That enabled Batch to look left to a wide-open Rasby, who caught the ball at the three and stepped into the end zone.
The Giants spent the rest of the quarter committing a series of crippling miscues, most of them on special teams. They included:
*After Batch fumbled the ball away, the Giants quickly moved from their own 33 to Detroit's 24. But Barber ruined the chance to take advantage of the turnover when he was hit by James Jones and fumbled. The ball was recovered by Detroit's Luther Elliss.
*The Giants forced the Lions to punt, and Barber put them in great position by returning it all the way to the Detroit 18. The glory was short-lived because Bashir Levingston was penalized for holding, sending the Giants back to their own 9-yard line, a 73-yard swing. Five plays later, rookie Larry Foster blasted through the middle of the Giants line untouched and blocked Brad Maynard's punt to set up Detroit's third touchdown.
"We were still in the game (because it was 14-0). We still had a chance to make a difference," said Barber, who threw the ball against the stadium wall in anger and frustration following his nullified punt return. "Those things are killers. I knew it was a penalty. There's nothing else the flag is going to be for. You have to keep going, because you never know. But I knew."
*Levingston fumbled on the next kickoff return, but the Lions failed to capitalize when Jason Hanson's field goal attempt hit the right upright as time expired in the half.
Howard's 50-yard return gave Detroit the ball on the Giants 28-yard line. The Lions needed only six plays to score, with James Stewart bulling his way into the end zone from a yard out.
The Lions needed to travel just eight yards for their third score after Cory Schlesinger recovered the blocked punt. Herman Moore scored the touchdown on a 7-yard pass from Batch. Moore was wide open in the end zone. That stretched Detroit's lead to 21-0 at halftime, the second week in a row the Giants have been in a three-touchdown hole at the break. Last week they trailed St. Louis, 28-7.
After the game, several players were upset at the special teams, but would not blame them for the defeat.
"If I only have 20 yards to go (for a touchdown) I can quarterback that," defensive tackle Keith Hamilton said. "You can't put people in holes like that. They're a professional football team. But we made our share of mistakes on defense, too. After we cut it to 28-14, we let them drive down and get a field goal. So that's on us. That's on the defense."
"It's unfair to blame this loss on the special teams," Sehorn said. "The defense played no better. The offense played no better. That's three areas of football. Who played good out there? I would have a hard time finding that person."
He wasn't alone. But it was the special teams that bore the brunt of the post-game blame.
Asked about the second period problems, Garnes said, "Special teams can't do that to us, but we can't control what they do. We can only control what happens when we're on the field. They pay us to hold them down, and we didn't do it."
"I'm not blaming everything on the special teams," Brown said. "But they take a part in it, just like the offense takes a part in it, just like the defense takes a part in it.
The Lions extended their lead to an astounding 28-0 when Batch threw a 32-yard touchdown pass to Morton on Detroit's first possession of the third period. Morton caught the ball in the middle of the defense at the 25-yard line and sprinted to the end zone untouched to put the finishing touches on a 65-yard drive that required just four plays. The march began with a 29-yard pass from Batch to David Sloan.
The Giants finally got on the scoreboard when Collins scored on a 3-yard quarterback draw midway through the third period. The play capped a nine-play, 71-yard drive that featured three Collins passes to Amani Toomer totaling 48 yards. The last of those receptions gave the Giants a first down on the Detroit 4-yard-line. After two plays netted nothing, Collins took the snap, stepped back and then raced forward to give the Giants some much-needed life.
They got a bit more excited when they cut their deficit to 14 points on tight end Dan Campbell's 2-yard touchdown pass from Collins with 22 seconds left in the third period. That made the score 28-14. The Giants 50-yard drive was aided by two Detroit penalties, including a 15-yarder on Schulz for unnecessary roughness on his helmet to helmet hit of wide receiver Ike Hilliard. But the biggest play was Collins' 16-yard pass to Pete Mitchell on a fourth-and-six from the 18. On the next snap, Collins found Campbell for the score.
For a fleeting moment, the Giants had hope. If they could score 14 points in the third period, why couldn't they match that total in the fourth and tie the game?
Why? Because the Lions again seized control of the game. They took 7:22 off the clock while driving 61 yards in 13 plays before Hanson's 19-yard field goal pushed the Giants three scores behind.
The Giants did manage to score a late touchdown on Collins' 13-yard pass to Joe Jurevicius. But fittingly, on a day when they set season-highs with 10 penalties for 103 yards, they had a 48-yard scoring pass to Barber nullified by a holding penalty and they were flagged four times for 40 yards on that last touchdown drive.
"I am very disappointed in the way we played that ballgame," Fassel said. "There are certain things you have to do to win a football game and we did none of them."
Which is why that 7-2 start seems like it occurred a long time ago.