The Giants' season turned today, a full rotation of fortune or fate, but the 10 offensive players on the field at the final two-minute warning were oblivious.
Their teammates on the sideline already knew: Tiki Barber saw the stunning numbers on the scoreboard and told everyone around him. The news spread like wildfire, said Giants Coach Jim Fassel, who told quarterback Kerry Collins. Collins jogged back onto the field to call the plays that would close out the rout of the Colts, and he leaned into the huddle. "The Saints lost," he announced.
New Orleans's stunning defeat in Cincinnati, coupled with the Giants' 44-27 wipeout of Indianapolis, leaves the Giants in control of their playoff destiny. If the Giants (9-6) beat Philadelphia at Giants Stadium next Saturday, they will earn a wild-card berth. The Giants could lose and still make the playoffs, so long as New Orleans loses to Carolina.
But after so much disappointment in this season — the sterile offense in the first seven games, wrenching losses to Arizona, Houston and Tennessee, a mass of injuries — the Giants' recovery seems like nothing less than incredible. Michael Strahan remembered sitting alone three weeks ago, after the team blew a lead against the Titans, "thinking the worst thoughts."
Now the Giants are rolling, at the best possible time. Fassel, near tears after the game, said he had never been so proud of any team.
"You don't want to say destiny, because destiny is for every team that's on a roll in this league," Barber said. "But you look what's happening with us offensively, and it's amazing. From where we were earlier in the season, when we couldn't score touchdowns, to now, when it's almost automatic inside the red zone.
"It's a dramatic transformation. Guys are getting stronger as this year goes on."
Collins generated a perfect rating of 158.3, completing 23 of 29 passes, throwing for 366 yards and 4 touchdowns without an interception. Amani Toomer had 10 catches, 3 for touchdowns, and 204 receiving yards, breaking the club record for yards in a season; he has 1,286, 77 more than Homer Jones had in 1967.
But it was the defense that was the foundation today, when the Giants took a 30-6 lead in the third quarter.
Colts quarterback Peyton Manning had used the play clock against defenses in previous games, waiting for the defense to commit to an alignment before calling a play at the line of scrimmage. But the Giants planned to take advantage of Manning's clock manipulation: if they could remain patient, the defensive coordinator Johnnie Lynn reminded them, and mask their alignment until the play clock neared zero, Manning would reach a point when he had to make a decision without enough time to change the play.
So the Giants' players moved constantly as Manning scanned the defense, perpetual motion designed to confuse. The defensive linemen shifted back and forth before the snaps — probably more than they ever have, Strahan said. Defensive end Kenny Holmes repeatedly set up inside, over the guard, and when Manning appeared to change the play, Holmes moved back outside.
The linebackers intermittently rushed to the line, stepped back, walked outside, stepped back inside. On third-and-11 in the first quarter, Shaun Williams stepped toward the line, and Manning shouted that Williams was acting as "the mike" — the middle linebacker — and altered his call. But Williams backed up, and the Giants were in perfect position to tackle tight end Joe Dean Davenport when Manning dumped a short pass over the middle.
"We were trying to give him some different looks and make him make some bad checks," cornerback Will Allen said, referring to how Manning changes plays. "And I think we did that a few times."
Manning "is a smart quarterback," linebacker Brandon Short said. "But he can't read your mind."
Jason Sehorn said: "We forced him to wait, and wait, and wait, and read the defense on the run, and that's tough for any quarterback."
The Giants also narrowed Manning's options by cutting off the Colts' running game. Some of the Giants' running plays were similar in design to those of Indianapolis, Barber said, and the defense reacted as if it knew was what coming, holding the Colts' backs to 10 yards on 10 carries in the first half.
Manning is a master of the play-action pass, but because the Colts did not have a credible running game, there was no reason to honor the fakes; Manning attempted only one play-action pass the entire game. "We showed it early — `You guys are not going to run the ball today,' " Allen said.
With Will Peterson sidelined with concussion-related problems, Allen covered the record-breaking receiver Marvin Harrison on every play. Allen made sure Harrison did not get free deep, and he got help on short passes — at the snap, Short repeatedly slid to Harrison's side, ensuring that Manning would not get a clear lane on short passes to his favorite wideout. Dhani Jones picked off a pass aimed at Harrison, on a play when Manning did not appear to see Jones dropping back in a zone.
"They did a good job mixing up some of their looks, pass coverage-wise," Manning said. "Since we were fairly one-dimensional, that was tough for us. But that's a credit to them for making us one-dimensional."
The Giants held a 10-0 lead in the second quarter, but Jeremy Shockey fumbled inside the Colts' 10 after making one of his seven receptions, and Barber fumbled just before halftime, setting up a Colts' field goal. The Giants should have had control of the game, like other games this season, and Fassel sensed his players needed emotional impetus.
He announced the first play of the second half would be a trick play, a flea-flicker the Giants practiced on Friday. Opening the second half at the 18-yard line, Barber took the handoff from Collins and ran about 5 yards laterally, with a wall of blockers in front of him.
Then Barber turned and threw the ball back to Collins. Strong safety David Gibson — pummeled by Shockey in the first half, when Shockey ran over him — immediately realized that Toomer was running free, behind the defense.
Gibson tried to catch up, but Collins hit Toomer perfectly, the ball floating into Toomer's hands. The Giants bounced off the field, greeted by their grinning coach.
The Colts (9-6), needing a victory to clinch a playoff berth — played desperately thereafter. Trailing by 14, they reached fourth down on their next possession, needed an inch and decided to go for it.
Short and middle linebacker Micheal Barrow, waiting at the line, agreed that one of them needed to take a chance. Short charged through a gap, slamming into James Mungro for a loss. This was the linebackers' best game "by far," Sehorn said.
The Colts splashed some irrelevant touchdowns across the final score, but the Giants waited out the final minutes comfortably, already feeling a sense of accomplishment. Fassel ordered others not to tell him the final score until after the game, but when Cincinnati took the lead, Frank Mara, the Giants' director of promotions, could not help himself.
"We're alive!" some players shouted in the locker room afterward.