The chorus to the Giants' season, a nearly mystical march that is now one victory from the Super Bowl, has been that this team was rebuilt with parts old and new, mixed with a winning chemistry that made for a stronger core.
Today, before 78,765, the largest Giants crowd in Giants Stadium history, the team's resident stars, Jason Sehorn, Michael Strahan and Jessie Armstead, linked with the team's top three rookies and displayed the best results yet of this new composite. It was a commanding 20-10 victory over the Philadelphia Eagles in their National Football Conference semifinal game as the Giants boldly advanced to next Sunday's N.F.C. championship game against the Minnesota Vikings at Giants Stadium.
In a game that began with the rookie Ron Dixon's 97-yard touchdown return of the opening kickoff, the Giants also got an acrobatic 32-yard interception return for a touchdown by Sehorn. Meanwhile, the Giants' defense, the team's strength for nearly as long as the franchise has been in the National Football League, dominated Philadelphia quarterback Donovan McNabb, sacking him six times and holding him to fewer than 200 yards of total offense.
Armstead, with nine tackles, helped lead the frequent blitzing of McNabb while the rookie defensive tackle Cornelius Griffin was used in a special role to spy on McNabb. Griffin finished with four tackles and a sack and a half. Finally, on a day when the Giants' offense struggled to take advantage of several scoring opportunities, the rookie running back Ron Dayne was a steadying influence in an uneven second half, leading the team with 53 rushing yards.
"Big players make big plays at big times," Giants Coach Jim Fassel said. "And that's what we had up and down the board. We had some young men help us and we had our veterans do spectacular jobs."
It was the Giants' third victory over the Eagles this season and their ninth successive victory over Philadelphia over all. It was also Fassel's first playoff victory as coach. His 1997 Giants lost a wild-card playoff game to Minnesota.
The Giants have played just one other championship game at Giants Stadium, a 17-0 victory over Washington in 1987 that preceded their first Super Bowl victory. The franchise has not lost a championship game since 1963.
The key to the game for the Giants had figured to be containing McNabb. With a variety of defenses and the spying of McNabb by Griffin, McNabb was held to 17 yards rushing on 5 carries. He threw for just 181 yards, completing 20 of 41 passes.
"We confused him," Armstead said. "There was no one thing, but we did attack him. They said he's Michael Jordan, but even Michael Jordan needs help."
And there was no help for McNabb. The Eagles all but abandoned their running game after the game's first series, which caused the Giants' defense to blitz more often.
"They blitzed on first, second and third down," McNabb said. "They put us in a lot of holes on third down, and when a defense gets in that position, it can do anything it wants."
The Eagles, who had just 186 total yards, converted just 2 of 15 third- down chances.
"Maybe the biggest thing is that we decided we weren't going to be afraid to attack him," said Strahan, who had two sacks. "Don't be afraid to go after him."
What made it easier for the Giants' defense was that they led, 7-0, before the Eagles ran their first play.
Dixon took care of that, fielding the opening kickoff at the 3-yard line and dashing straight up the middle of the field. There was an opening several yards wide and Dixon burst through it, eluding Eagles place-kicker David Akers near midfield and running untouched into the end zone.
It was the first kickoff return for a touchdown in Giants playoff history, the longest scoring play in Giants postseason history and the first return of a game's opening kickoff by a Giant since Clarence Childs in 1966.
"Obviously, it was a great start and set the tone for the game," Fassel said. "Any team plays better when it's ahead."
But with the Giants' offense sputtering, it was still a 10-0 game late in the second quarter. And there was a sense that the explosive McNabb could quickly get the Eagles back in the game.
"But we noticed they really weren't trying to throw anything deep," Sehorn said. "And in the secondary, we kept creeping up."
With 1 minute 40 seconds left in the first half, McNabb attempted to throw a deep square-out to wide receiver Torrance Small along the right sideline. As he was throughout the game, McNabb was pressured in the pocket, with Giants defensive tackle Keith Hamilton forcing him to hurry his throw.
As McNabb let go of the ball, Sehorn, who had been retreating in coverage, broke forward and dove for the pass in front of Small. Sehorn got his hands on the ball, but he was bobbling it as he rolled over to his back. Lying on the grass, Sehorn batted the ball in the air, then caught it with two hands as he was rising to run.
With the ball tucked under his arm, Sehorn quickly made a move to elude a Philadelphia lineman, then outraced McNabb to the corner of the end zone for a 17-0 Giants lead. Sehorn, who never celebrates his tackles or scoring plays, uncharacteristically threw the ball in the air as he ran through the back of the end zone.
"I've never seen an interception like that," Fassel said.
Sehorn said: "Sometimes you just get lucky. I batted at it as I was lying on my back. It was instinct. I was just trying to keep the ball from touching the ground."
While the Giants dominated the game from the beginning, it was not an overpowering offensive show. Moreover, the Giants, who had 237 total yards, squandered several scoring opportunities, especially in the first half, when they fumbled twice.
Wide receiver Ike Hilliard fumbled a handoff from Dayne on an attempted reverse that was recovered at the Eagles' 35-yard line with 7:52 left in the second quarter. About three minutes later, Strahan tossed aside Eagles right tackle Jon Runyan and sacked McNabb, causing a fumble that was recovered by the Giants' Cedric Jones at the Eagles' 27-yard line.
But that scoring chance ended with a fumble by Tiki Barber, who was stripped of the ball while running a sweep to the right and holding the ball with his right arm. Barber, who played with a broken left arm, would rush for just 35 yards in the game on 15 carries. He caught 3 passes for 13 yards.
Giants quarterback Kerry Collins rushed for 17 yards — the same total as McNabb — and threw for 125 yards while completing 12 of 19 passes.
With 2:21 remaining in the game, the Eagles' Jason Bostic blocked a Brad Maynard punt. Bostic ran around the left end untouched and was in perfect position for the block when Maynard had to move to his right to field a snap that was low and off line. Bostic returned the blocked punt to the Giants' 9-yard line.
Four plays later, McNabb hit Small with a pass in the flat. Small sprinted past Giants cornerback Dave Thomas for a 10-yard touchdown with 1:56 remaining.
The Eagles' only other score of the game was a 28-yard field goal by David Akers 26 seconds before intermission. Akers later missed a 30- yard field goal in the third quarter. Trailing by 20-3 in the game's final minutes, the Eagles' last drive ended when McNabb's pass to Chad Lewis on fourth-and-15 picked up 14 yards.
A fumble by Small led to a 37-yard Brad Daluiso field goal that gave the Giants a 10-0 lead early in the second quarter. Small caught a pass from McNabb but was stripped of the ball by Giants free safety Shaun Williams. Thomas recovered the fumble at the Eagles' 34-yard line. A 12-yard pass from Collins to Barber moved the ball into field-goal position.
Daluiso also kicked a 25-yard field goal midway through the fourth quarter.