Three weeks ago, the Giants hit rock bottom. They had fallen behind by 28 points and lost to a mediocre Detroit Lions team at home. The players, who had stayed in formation for so long, began to break ranks and criticize the special teams. The Giants had suffered two lopsided losses in a row, fallen to 7-4 and lost their hold on first place in the NFC East.
Any notion that this was a playoff team in the making was greeted with skepticism, if not outright derision. Those were the same reactions Jim Fassel received when he made his now-famous playoff guarantee three days after the Detroit debacle.
Now, however, the Giants deserve admiration and praise. On Sunday they blasted the Pittsburgh Steelers, 30-10, in Giants Stadium to win their third consecutive game and improve to 10-4, their first double-digit victory season since the 1997 NFC East champions were 10-5-1.
Although Philadelphia's victory at Cleveland prevented them from clinching the division, and wins by St. Louis and New Orleans postponed the official securing of a playoff berth, the Giants can wrap up a postseason invitation and the division crown with one victory in their last two games: next Sunday night in Dallas, or home against Jacksonville a week from Saturday.
If they win their final two games, they are guaranteed no worse than the second seed in the NFC playoffs and a first round postseason bye.
"We were left for dead," said Fassel, whose team turned the corner with last week's huge victory in Washington. "Now we're alive and kicking. Now we have two games to go. I'm proud of my guys because of the way they rallied."
The Giants manhandled Pittsburgh, now 7-7 on the year. The Steelers scored their only touchdown with 1:04 left in the game, after Fassel had ordered the defensive starters out of the game to avoid the risk of injury. Pittsburgh running back Jerome Bettis, who had been averaging 88.2 rushing yards a game, was held to 39 yards on 17 carries.
Offensively, the Giants had several heroes. Tiki Barber, Ike Hilliard and Amani Toomer scored touchdowns. Kerry Collins, who is becoming everything the Giants hoped he would be when they signed him as a free agent in February of 1991, threw for 333 yards and a pair of touchdowns while completing 24 of 35 passes. Toomer had a season-high 136 receiving yards on nine catches, which equaled his season-high. Hilliard, returning after missing two games with bruises to his lungs and sternum, caught five passes for 90 yards, including a 59-yarder that is the Giants longest of the season. The offensive line allowed just one sack.
Brad Daluiso kicked three field goals for the second week in a row and the coverage teams were airtight. Daluiso has made 12 consecutive field goal attempts and the Giants have made 14 in a row as a team dating back to their three misses in Chicago on Sept. 17.
The Giants are peaking at the right time, playing their best football when the games count the most.
"I think right now what we feel is a sense of urgency. We can't afford to lose any games," defensive end Michael Strahan said. "We have to win every game to give ourselves the best possible position going into the playoffs."
"We're peaking right now," safety Sam Garnes said. "We're confident, but we are a mature group so we understand what it takes and we're not overconfident."
The Giants quickly ended the suspense regarding the outcome. Omar Stoutmire - substituting for the suspended Ron Dixon - returned the opening kickoff 47 yards to the Pittsburgh 41. On the first offensive play, Collins flipped a short pass to Barber, who turned it into an 18-yard gain. The drive stalled against the Steelers NFL-best red zone defense before Daluiso kicked a 38-yard field goal just 2:06 into the game, their quickest score of the season. Early in the second period, Daluiso added a 40-yard to make it 6-0.
The Giants increased their advantage to 13-0 on Barber's 3-yard run up the gut with 8:27 remaining in the third period. It was the Giants first touchdown in five quarters and 21 possessions. The score capped a nine-play, 60-yard drive that featured an 11-yard pass to Hilliard and a key 6-yard, third down reception by Joe Jurevicius.
"It was sweet," Barber said of his sixth rushing touchdown of the season. "They expected us to go outside. But it was over-pursued and I just cut back and backed my way in. It was nice. It was a good feeling."
The Steelers also had the red zone blues and had to settle for Kris Brown's 32-yard field goal when they finally got on the scoreboard 35 seconds before halftime.
The score proved to be a mere speed bump to the hard-charging Giants. Pittsburgh took the second half kickoff, drove 50 yards to the Giants 18, only to have Brown hook a 36-yard field goal try wide left, his first miss inside 40 yards this season.
On the ensuing possession, the Giants stretched their lead to 20-3 lead when Hilliard's first outstanding play of the afternoon turned a short pass from Kerry Collins into a 9-yard touchdown. On a third-down play, Hilliard caught the ball at the five, stayed upright despite tackle attempts by safeties Brent Alexander and Ainsley Battles, spun around and stepped into the end zone.
"I almost dropped the ball," Hilliard said. "It was a blitz situation and things speed up on the blitz. I almost took my eye off the ball trying to get up the field real quick. I think double catching it helped, because he tried to hit me from behind and I was able to bounce off him and run into the end zone."
Four minutes later, Hilliard was the key figure in one of the most electrifying plays of the season, a 59-yard catch-and-run that gave the Giants a first down on Pittsburgh's 7-yard line. On second-and-11 from the Giants 34, Hilliard caught a pass from Kerry Collins on the right sideline at the 45, eluded two tacklers while cutting inside at the Pittsburgh 40, sidestepped another Steeler before continuing upfield until he was tripped up by Battle at the 7-yard line. Battle was knocked to the ground by Greg Comella, but Hilliard made a move right into him.
"I should have scored on that play," Hilliard said of the longest reception of his career. "I should have never let (Battle) bring me down."
The improbable tackle cost the Giants four points because they had to settle for another Dalusio field goal.
Toomer was the star on the Giants final scoring possession, which began when Reggie Stephens intercepted a Kordell Stewart pass in the end zone. The Giants then drove 80 yards in 11 plays. Toomer got the biggest chunk of yardage on a 45-yard pass from Collins up the left sideline. He also got the touchdown on a brilliant tightrope catch on the right side of the end zone after Collins had rolled to his right and fired a strike.
The Giants would certainly have held their third consecutive opponent to single-digit scoring, but Fassel sat down the starters late in the final period.
By then the first-teamers had earned a rest. After all, they have some big games coming up.
"All you have to do is get hot at the right time," defensive tackle Keith Hamilton said. "Every team has defining moments in the season. Last week was a big, big deal for us because Washington had beaten us (four) times in a row. We were able to overcome that hump. We took a lot of confidence out of that game and stayed confident in this game."
With two games remaining and a division title there for the taking, there's no reason for the Giants to doubt themselves now.