In the huddle, an on-field gathering like no other in sports, every Giant was silent. It was not the hush of anticipation, not a lull from fatigue and far from the stillness that overcomes the calmly confident. Disgust had left the Giants speechless.
"We were fed up," running back Tiki Barber said. "There had been way too much said already this year. It had been 12 games of this."
In a season of lost opportunities, several games had come down to the final drive, and never had the Giants been able to turn stunning defeat into stirring victory. Now the Giants, after nearly three hours of sloppy, unsightly play, were trailing late again.
The once-dependable Giants defense had yielded another implausible fourth- quarter touchdown to give up the narrow lead the Giants held through most of the game. The Giants' offense, which had not scored a fourth-quarter point in more than a month, was charged with winning the game.
"Nobody said a thing," said wide receiver Amani Toomer, who played so poorly he was nearly benched. "But we looked in each other's eyes. We were playing awful. I had dropped passes. We looked at each other and said, `Enough is enough.' "
Eleven plays later, with just 25 seconds remaining, Toomer caught a 4- yard touchdown pass from Kerry Collins for the winning score in a 17-13 Giants victory. For the Giants' season, it may have been a comeback that proves to be much too late. For a day, the Giants (6-7) took satisfaction in turning back the clock to when they routinely won close games.
"Obviously, we didn't do a lot of things right," Giants Coach Jim Fassel said. "There were a lot of broken parts out there. But we could have said it wasn't in the cards for us and given up. And instead we fought back."
When the Cardinals (5-8) scored a touchdown with 4 minutes 4 seconds remaining in the game to take a 13-10 lead, there was a moment on the sideline when some Giants wondered if their season was cursed.
"I know when they scored there I said, `You've got to be kidding me,' " Collins said.
The Cardinals' touchdown had indeed been unexpected, coming as it did on fourth-and-15 from the Giants' 24-yard line. Arizona, whose place- kicker Bill Gramatica had hyperextended his right knee jumping into the air after a first-quarter field goal, was forced to go for the touchdown. Cardinals quarterback Jake Plummer scrambled with Giants defensive end Michael Strahan in pursuit. Plummer fired for the back of the end zone, where Shaun Williams and Jason Sehorn had Arizona tight end Tywan Mitchell surrounded.
But as Sehorn jumped, he collided with and knocked down Williams. The ball sailed through Sehorn's hands, and Mitchell, who jumped an inch or so higher than Sehorn, caught the ball inches from the back of the end zone for a touchdown.
Near midfield, Strahan lay with his face mask in the grass for several seconds, repeatedly kicking his feet and pounding his hands on the turf.
"But I think we all regrouped," Strahan said. "I went to the sideline and told the offense to go get them. I know we hadn't done it before, but I wasn't going to stop rooting for a comeback."
Beginning at their 30-yard line, the Giants made the first play a harbinger of things to come. Collins threw to Ike Hilliard, who caught the pass for 14 yards. Earlier in the game, there had been five blatant drops by Giants receivers, three by Toomer and two by Tiki Barber. "But I was going to just keep slinging it," Collins said.
After a 14-yard run by Barber, Collins went back to Hilliard for a 9- yard reception.
Before the drive, Collins and the Giants — like the Cardinals' offense — had looked hopelessly out of sync. In the final drive, as if by magic, the Giants abruptly appeared poised and capable. Collins, who finished with 14 completions in 32 attempts for 147 yards, threw to Toomer for 14 yards to the Arizona 29-yard line.
Then, facing a crucial third-and-10 at the Arizona 15-yard line, Collins waited patiently in the pocket, looking off his primary and his secondary receivers before unloading a pass to Barber as he streaked across the middle of the field. Barber, who also rushed for 85 yards on 16 carries, turned upfield and got the first down at the Arizona 4-yard line.
After a run for no gain by fullback Greg Comella, Collins connected with Toomer in the right corner of the end zone with 25 seconds remaining. The Giants had been targeting Arizona cornerback Renaldo Hill, a rookie reserve and seventh-round draft pick, for most of the game. Hill later claimed that Toomer pushed to gain position in the end zone.
"No, he tripped," Toomer said. "I ran at him and as soon as he turned his feet, I put on the brakes. He couldn't stop."
The stirring conclusion followed a crude, dull, nationally televised game. Both offensive units took turns struggling to score points and both teams' kicking games were inexpert if not downright comical.
The Giants took the lead in the first quarter on a 26-yard touchdown pass from Collins to wide receiver Ron Dixon, who was playing for the injured Joe Jurevicius. On the score, Collins looked to his right for Toomer but then turned to his left and deftly lofted a pass between two Arizona defenders into the arms of Dixon, who caught the pass as he was streaking into the end zone. The touchdown was the kind of well-executed pass play — a properly run pattern and a perfect pass — that Collins and the Giants completed frequently last season.
But it has been rare to have the quarterback and receiver in sync this season. And today, the drops by Toomer and Barber added to the Giants' problems. Fassel said he considered benching Toomer in the second half but decided against it.
Arizona's problems were more taxing, especially since the Cardinals all but lost the ability to kick off or attempt a field goal. In a scene of high comedy, Gramatica injured himself jumping into the air to celebrate his 42-yard field goal in the first quarter. When Gramatica landed, he immediately grabbed his right knee. He kicked a 23-yard field goal late in the second quarter but was unable to attempt any longer field goals.
The Giants were not feeling sorry for the Cardinals. "We've got our own problems," Barber said. "Fortunately, we solved them long enough for one win. We're going to have to get a lot better. But we pulled it together in the end for one drive. We were fed up and we did something about it."