Sean Payton said he was sick to his stomach. Tiki Barber was stunned. Jim Fassel was furious. But Jeremy Shockey might have best captured yesterday what was going through the minds of the Giants and their fans.
"I was thinking, 'I can't believe this is happening,'" the rookie tight end said.
It happened in the waning seconds of the first half of a 21-7 loss to the Cardinals at Sun Devil Stadium, and it could become a turning point not only in one devastating defeat, but also in a season that was full of promise entering the day.
It left Fassel accepting blame for the loss, but making it clear he did not agree with how his coordinator, Payton, and quarterback Kerry Collins handled the pivotal situation. It also caused some players, including Collins, to hint that they did not agree with the risk involved in the strategy.
The Giants led 7-0 with 14 seconds left before intermission, and had the ball at their 32-yard line after a missed field goal. Collins said the consensus before he took the field was that the Giants would take a knee and run out the clock.
Once on the field, Collins heard from Payton that the Giants would send out their multiple-receiver personnel and seek to gain the 35-40 yards needed for a field-goal try. The call was a pass to the right sideline in which Ike Hilliard went deep and Barber shallow in an effort to "high-low" the defensive back, forcing him to follow one or the other.
Passing deep down the middle of the field would have been safer than attacking the flat, but Payton said the play was designed to gain yardage, go out of bounds and set up another pass. Collins thought defender Justin Lucas was with Hilliard, so he threw to Barber. Lucas stepped in front of him, made the catch and ran the ball back 38 yards for the tying touchdown.
"I will never in my life ever take a chance to try to be aggressive again," said Fassel, who said he has scored touchdowns in similar situations in the past. "You don't throw the ball in the flat, you throw it down the field and you get out of there. I didn't make the [play] call. I gave the green light [to pass].
"That was a bad move on my part, a bad move to trust them and go for it and not have that happen. The last thing I said was to be careful and get the ball down the field. We throw it in the flat. It'll never happen again."
Payton said: "The idea was to advance the ball quickly, not using a lot of time. I was sick to my stomach that we give them a cheap seven like that ... That was something that in hindsight bit us in the --."
Collins said he was surprised by Fassel's change of heart, and when asked whether he thought the Giants were trying to be too aggressive by not taking a knee, he said, "Yes." He took responsibility for the throw. "I didn't see the guy and obviously didn't throw it where I needed to throw it," he said. "Regardless of whatever I think or feel, once that ball leaves my hand, it's my responsibility."
Lucas said: "Kerry was looking at him the whole way. So I jumped the route, got a hand on it and luckily scored." Collins caught up to Lucas and knocked him out of bounds, but Lucas was able to hit the end-zone pylon with the ball.
"It was huge," Collins said of the change in momentum.
The Giants (2-2) had started brilliantly, driving for a touchdown on their first possession, with Barber running it in from the 6, their second touchdown in 11 trips inside the red zone. The Giants ended the first quarter with eight first downs, but a Collins interception scuttled one drive and another ended on a failed third-and-1 run by Barber.
In the second half, the Giants had six drives; none gained more than 29 yards. They had six first downs after the first quarter, two in garbage time. Finally, the defense wilted in 90-degree plus temperatures. It allowed two fourth-quarter touchdowns - on a 7-yard pass from Jake Plummer to Marcel Shipp with 10:36 left and a 10-yard run by Shipp with 2:13 remaining. The Cardinals had eight of their 16 first downs in the fourth quarter and totaled 36:05 in possession time.
Afterward, Fassel ripped into the offense in the locker room, then told reporters, "Our whole offense is to blame." Collins threw erratically and the running game struggled.
The Giants also hurt themselves with penalties, some questionable. A 76-yard pass from Collins to Ron Dixon that would have given the Giants a 14-7 lead in the third quarter was erased on a holding call against Mike Rosenthal. Later, a roughing-the-passer flag against Michael Strahan kept alive a Cardinals drive that resulted in the go-ahead touchdown.
The Giants finished with 10 penalties for 110 yards. "We just played dumb," said Strahan, who had the Giants' only sack.
The loss left the Giants in a tie with Dallas for second place in the NFC East, a game behind the Eagles. It was only their third loss to the Cardinals in 11 games under Fassel.
After making it clear there was plenty of blame to go around, Fassel, still steaming, said: "It's a team loss. I'm the head coach. I take the loss. Nobody else gets it in their column. I do. I'm responsible."