Packers 34, Giants 25

Michael Strahan and Kerry Collins enjoyed record-setting games in the Giants' season finale against Green Bay on Sunday, but their exploits couldn't prevent the Giants from concluding their season with a losing record.

The Giants ended the 2001 season with a 34-25 loss to the playoff-bound Packers in Giants Stadium. They trailed, 34-10, before scoring 15 unanswered points in the fourth period. The Giants lost their last two games to finish 7-9 for the second time in three seasons.

For highlights from their season finale the Giants had to look at individual achievement. Defensive end Michael Strahan entered the NFL record book with 2:42 left in the fourth period when he sacked Green Bay quarterback Brett Favre for a 7-yard loss. That gave Strahan a league-record 22.5 sacks for the season, eclipsing Mark Gastineau's 17-year-old standard of 22 sacks.

Collins had career-high totals of 59 passes, 36 completions and 386 yards, while leading an offense that gained a staggering 524 yards, the seventh-highest total in franchise history and the most since they had 535 yards against New Orleans on Oct. 8, 1967. He also became the first player in NFL history to throw every one of his team's passes two seasons in a row. Collins finished with over 300 yards passing for the third game in a row, the first time in his career he has put together three straight 300-yard games.

Collins also established a record he'd prefer not to own. He was charged with three fumbles, giving him 22 for the season, one more than the record set by Tony Banks, then with St. Louis, in 1986. One or more of those fumbles might be reviewed and overturned later in the week by the Elias Sports Bureau.

While Strahan was the star of the day and Collins put on an impressive performance, they couldn't prevent the team from suffering its eighth loss in 12 games following a 3-1 start. The Giants started the season hoping to return to the Super Bowl. They ended it sitting in third place in the NFC East, two games under .500.

"It's been a disappointing year," coach Jim Fassel said. "It starts with me and I will evaluate the team. Somehow and somewhere, we left this season short. I am not happy with the way we ended this season. They gave good effort, but somewhere we left this season short. We made too many mistakes and we didn't perform at a level that I was satisfied with. I will start this week with an evaluation of everything in this organization and the way we do things."

Fassel then stopped to salute the Giants best player this season.

"I am extremely happy for Michael Strahan," Fassel said. "He has worked hard and been a team guy. He's worked his butt off. To break an NFL record is quite an accomplishment. His teammates are happy for him."

They would have been a lot happier if they were returning to the playoffs - or, at least, if they had won the game and finished at .500.

"We didn't play well enough. It's that simple," Collins said. "We came out and we played with pride, we played hard, but we didn't make the plays and they made all the plays. That is basically what it came down to. I thought offensively we played a lot better in the past three or four weeks than we had at any point during the season. A lot of guys stuck with it, kept moving and kept trying to get better, and I think it showed the way we played the last few weeks. By no means did we have the kind of year we wanted to, but I was proud of the way we finished up." Brett Favre threw two touchdown passes, Ahman Green ran for two scores, and Ryan Longwell kicked two field goals for the Packers, who finished 12-4 and will host San Francisco in an NFC Wild Card playoff game next week.

Ike Hilliard, Tiki Barber and Ron Dayne scored touchdowns for the Giants, the latter two after the game appeared to be out of reach in the fourth period.

After trailing at halftime, 17-10, the Giants were outscored 17-0 in the third quarter to find themselves trailing by 24 points entering the final period.

The Packers extended their lead to 24-10 on Green's 1-yard run with just 2:53 expired in the third period. The score was set up by the Giants' struggling kickoff team, which allowed long returns all day to a Packers team that entered the game last in the NFL with a return average of 17.4 yards. Against the Giants they averaged 34.5 yards, including Dorsey Levens' 53-yarder to open the second half.

That gave Green Bay a first down on the Giants' 31-yard line. The Packers needed just five plays to cover the distance, with Green all but walking into the end zone for the score.

After a Giants punt, Longwell kicked a 43-yard field goal to push Green Bay's lead to 27-10. The 57-yard drive before the kick was aided by a dubious pass interference penalty called on cornerback Thomas, who appeared to be doing no more than running stride for stride with receiver Bill Schroeder. The penalty gave the Packers a first down on the Giants' 29-yard line. After three plays netted five yards, Longwell kicked the field goal.

Then it got really ugly for the Giants as Collins' 21st fumble resulted in a Favre touchdown pass that expanded Green Bay's lead to 34-10.

The Giants had a first-and-10 on the Packers' 28 when Collins dropped back to pass and was hit by defensive end Billy Lyon. The ball popped up and was plucked out of the air by Vonnie Holliday, who returned 11 yards to the Green Bay 47. Three plays later, Favre passed down field to speedy receiver Corey Bradford, who got behind cornerback Dave Thomas, caught the ball at the 25 and ran untouched to the end zone for a 54-yard touchdown pass.

Barber moved the Giants a bit closer with a 10-yard touchdown run, his first score in five games. On Green Bay's next possession, a 45-yard pass from Favre to Schroeder helped move the Packers to the 1-yard line. But Favre fumbled a snap and Lance Legree recovered for the Giants to end the threat.

Collins then led a 99-yard, 19-play drive - the first 18 plays were passes - that concluded with Dayne's 1-yard touchdown run. Dayne also scored on a 2-point conversion to slice Green Bay's lead to 34-25. But Owen Pochman's onside kickoff attempt went out-of-bounds, giving Green Bay the ball at its own 42-yard line. On first down, Strahan sacked Favre for the record.

"I couldn't ask personally for anything better," Strahan said. "Team wise I could have asked for a lot better. And that's the part that's hard to understand that the team's success isn't better. I feel I have to work harder next year to make sure that isn't the case again. You feel responsible; the record is on my back too, regardless of anything else that I've done. I have to find a way, as well as everyone else, to try to make the ship right."

Longwell's 44-yard field goal as time expired in the second period increased the Packers' lead at halftime to 17-14. After a Giants punt, Green Bay took possession on its own 15 with 1:04 left. On third-and-one from the 24, Favre hooked up with Bradford for a 45-yard gain to the Giants 31. On the next snap, Favre faked a spike and threw to the right side for Schroeder, who appeared to be tackled inbounds. But the officials ruled that he was out-of-bounds, stopping the clock. Favre threw an incompletion before Longwell came on to kick his field goal.

The Giants had pulled to within 14-10 on Morten Andersen's 27-yard field goal with 11:54 left in the second period. The Giants moved 66 yards in four plays, getting 61 of those yards on Dayne's career-long run. His previous career best was a 55-yarder against New Orleans on Sept. 30. It was the Giants longest run from scrimmage since Barber's 78-yard scamper against Arizona on Sept. 3, 2000.

The teams each missed field goals on their next possessions, but the Giants failure to score was far more frustrating because they did score and had the points taken off the board.

Andersen kicked what would have been a 50-yard field goal, which would have sliced the Giants deficit to 14-13. But the play didn't count because Luke Petitgout was penalized for the second time in a game for a false start. Jim Fassel then sent Pochman on the field to attempt a 55-yard field goal - his first try since a 63-yard attempt on opening night in Denver. Pochman's kick had enough distance, but was wide left.

Earlier, Longwell was wide right on a 45-yard attempt.

The Giants trailed 14-7 at the end of the first period, a quarter in which the Giants fell behind by two touchdowns early. But they rebounded to score a touchdown and temporarily put themselves back in contention.

The game started poorly for the Giants. Kevin Lewis was penalized 10 yards for holding on the opening kickoff. Collins and Dayne had a poor exchange on a pitchout on the first play from scrimmage. It was ruled an aborted play, but Collins was charged with the fumble. Dayne recovered, but the Giants went-three-and-out and had to punt.

Green Bay needed just four plays to travel 62 yards for its first touchdown. Favre hit Bubba Franks for a 23-yard completion on the Packers' first play and a wide-open Schroeder for a 26-yard touchdown pass and a 7-0 lead.

On the third play of the Giants next possession, Collins was intercepted by Darren Sharper on his third pass of the game, ending a streak of 121 consecutive passes without a pick, the longest such streak of Collins' career. Collins' previous best was 110 passes without an interception from Oct. 13 to Nov. 10, 1996, when he played for the Carolina Panthers. That streak ended with an interception by Jessie Armstead. Collins' previous long streak as a Giant was 106 passes without an interception, from Oct. 8 to Nov. 12, 2000.

More importantly, the turnover led to a Packers touchdown, this one a 25-yard by Green, who took a handoff and darted through the defense virtually untouched. With just 6:27 elapsed in the game, the Giants trailed, 14-0.

But instead of folding in a game that meant little to them, the Giants mounted a charge of their own. They drove 67 yards in eight plays to move within 14-7 on an 8-yard touchdown pass from Collins to Hilliard, who caught the ball just inside the end line and somehow got both feet down before falling out-of-bounds. Green Bay coach Mike Sherman challenged the ruling, but after reviewing tapes of the play, referee Johnny Greer upheld the original call and the touchdown.

Prior to the touchdown, the most significant play on the drive was a 27-yard reception that enabled Amani Toomer to reach two milestones. The catch was his 70th of the season, making him the first Giants receiver to reach that plateau in three consecutive seasons. The reception also put him over 1,000 yards for the season. Toomer is the third Giant in history to have three consecutive 1,000-yard seasons.

But like those of Strahan and Collins, Toomer's individual exploits couldn't lift the Giants to victory.

"It's hard to put your finger on the problem (this season)," Fassel said. "The first thing you must understand one thing, there are some things that I internalize, that I don't verbalize, because it sounds like an excuse. When I took this job, I said I never wanted to do that kind of thing. This team has worked hard. I've got some things I won't tell you now. When we got started, I was a little nervous that we'd gotten shaken early on. We lost our focus. In the beginning of the year we started 3-1, but were not playing well. I thought we were just getting over the (Sept. 11) attacks. We just started to pick it up. They fought hard, but lost a couple of games by one point (to St. Louis and Philadelphia) that were heart breakers. I never felt like we were the same."

The record says he was right.