The Giants ventured to the capital of country music on Sunday and hit nothing but flat notes.
Maddeningly out of rhythm on offense and frustratingly generous on defense, the Giants dug themselves a big early hole and fell to the defending AFC champion Tennessee Titans, 28-14, before a raucous crowd of 68,341 in Adelphia Coliseum.
The Giants lost their second game in a row - and sole possession of first place in the NFC East - after opening the season with three victories. They visit Atlanta next week. Tennessee is 3-1.
The Giants lost ugly, surrendering several long Titans drives and holding the ball for only 17:14, the franchise's lowest figure since the NFL started keeping the statistic in 1977. After entering the game as the NFL's top rushing team, with 163.8 yards a game, the Giants were limited to a mere 24 yards on the ground. Tiki Barber carried five times for only two yards.
"Obviously, I'm very disappointed in the way we played," coach Jim Fassel said. "I thought we played poorly and I thought Tennessee played very well."
Quarterback Steve McNair threw for 293 yards and three touchdowns (two to Frank Wycheck and a third to Derrick Mason) and Eddie George rushed for 125 yards and added a touchdown for the Titans, who enjoyed a 436-215 advantage in total yards. Tennessee kept the ball most of the afternoon by succeeding on 14 of 20 third down conversion attempts.
The game was decided early. In three of their first four possessions, the Titans had touchdown drives of 80, 98 and 80 yards to take a 21-0 halftime lead.
"The key to the first half was we couldn't get them off the field," Fassel said. "We were playing pretty well on first and second downs, but we couldn't stop them on third down. We felt like we knew where they were going to go and what they were doing, but we couldn't make any plays on them.
"The offense had nothing going. You can't have that time of possession when you're on the road against a good football team. I'm very disappointed in the way we played defensively. We never took the physical battle to them. I thought they took the physical battle to us."
Many players in the locker room were surprised not only that they had played poorly, but that the proper emotional pitch was lacking. After last week's loss to Washington, the Giants were determined to return to a winning track. But the spark was missing.
"Me being the captain, I went out and I played flat," said linebacker Jessie Armstead, whose inspired and emotional play usually sets the tone for the defense. "If the main guy is flat, it triggers down to the next guy. We'll take this one, but we won't take another one. I'll make sure of that."
Quarterback Kerry Collins, who completed 17 of 36 passes and was intercepted three times said, "We flat-out got our butts kicked. That's two weeks in a row. We have to find a way to dig ourselves out of this hole. We're searching for answers and we're really not finding any at this point. But we'll get it right.
"We're not coming into games confident, we're not coming into games knowing what we need to do. I'm beyond frustrated. I thought we came in with the right attitude, ready to play, and then we played like we did today."
It was suggested to several players that Fassel raised a warning flag on Thursday when he lectured the team following what he considered a substandard practice. But the players said they were prepared - Collins noted that practices Wednesday and Friday were very good - and believed they were poised to play a solid game.
But when the game began the Giants were flatter than a week-old glass of champagne.
"I felt a little flat, but I'm not making excuses," defensive tackle Keith Hamilton said. "They executed and we didn't. When it all shakes out, that's what happened."
It began happening immediately after the opening kickoff.
On the game's first possession, Tennessee marched 80 yards in nine plays for a quick early lead. Wycheck, the tight end whose status was supposed to be uncertain because of a concussion, scored the touchdown, slipping between Ryan Phillips and Shaun Williams to catch a 14-yard pass from McNair just inside the end zone. McNair was 6-for-6 for 64 yards on the drive. The Giants hurt themselves with three 5-yard encroachment penalties, two by Hamilton and one by Christian Peter.
The Giants' deficit increased to 14-0 with 8:48 left in the second period when George scored on a 7-yard run through the left side. The play ended a nightmarish 9:53 for the Giants defense, which had several chances to halt the Titans in their tracks but instead surrendered a mammoth 19-play, 98-yard drive. Tennessee converted all six of its third-down attempts on the long march, including five of eight yards or longer.
On the last one, a third-and-eight from the Giants 26-yard line, George caught a short pass from McNair and raced all the way to the seven, where he was tackled by Armstead. On the next play, George took a handoff and ran into the end zone untouched.
The Titans became the first Giants opponent to score a touchdown on their opening possession in 19 games, since Washington's Stephen Davis scored on a 1-yard run on Sept. 19, 1999.
Tennessee's lead grew to 21-0 when McNair threw a 29-yard touchdown pass to Mason with 2:54 remaining in the first half. The play capped a nine-play, 80-yard drive that consumed 4:49. The longest play other than the touchdown was a 22-yard McNair pass to Wycheck.
While the Titans moved up and down the field, the Giants barely held onto the ball. They went three-and-out on their first three series and at halftime, they had run only 16 plays, gained 45 yards and held the ball for only 5:43.
"We were so out of sync with everything offensively," Collins said. "We never got into a rhythm. There was no continuity, no rhythm to what we were doing."
The Giants finally got on the scoreboard with 5:25 left in the third period, when Collins threw a 14-yard touchdown pass in the back of the end zone to Ike Hilliard, who beat cornerback Samari Rolle on the play. Collins made a nice play-action fake and had plenty of time to find Hilliard, who scored his third touchdown of the season.
The score ended a six-play, 82-yard drive that was aided by two Titans penalties. After Amani Toomer opened the march with a 17-yard reception, he drew a 25-yard pass interference penalty by Denard Walker. That gave the Giants a first down on the Tennessee 40.
On the next play, Collins again threw to Toomer. The ball was high, but Toomer was slammed by Marcus Robertson, who was penalized 15 yards for a late hit. Three plays netted 11 yards before Collins and Hilliard teamed up for the touchdown.
But just as the offense was finding a beat, the defense lost its tempo as Tennessee responded with its fourth long scoring drive of the afternoon, a 14-play, 80-yard possession that shaved 7:59 off the clock. McNair threw his third touchdown pass of the day, a 3-yarder to Wycheck, who may or may not have gotten the ball over the goal line before it was knocked away.
The Giants scored their last touchdown with 7:04 left in the fourth period, when Collins found tight end Dan Campbell in the back of the end zone for a 1-yard score on a fourth-down play. Campbell's first career touchdown climaxed an eight-play, 59-yard drive that began with a 40-yard pass from Collins to Toomer. That gave the Giants a first down on the Tennessee 19. A pass to Tiki Barber picked up 12 yards and Collins got six more on a quarterback draw before throwing his second scoring pass of the afternoon.
With the Giants desperately trying to get back into the game, Collins was intercepted by Walker and Rolle on the last two possessions.
"I thought we were ready to play," Fassel said. "We needed something good to happen and we couldn't make anything happen."
The result was a bad afternoon for the Giants.