Perpetual failure drained the Giants here today, slashing into their veins of hope on a day they dreamed of making the playoffs. Seven fumbles, an interception, two touchdowns called back because of penalties: each of the mistakes, tackle Luke Petitgout said, took something out of them.
But Philadelphia's All-Pro kicker, David Akers, missed a 35-yard field-goal attempt with 76 seconds remaining in regulation, and the Giants were still alive to play overtime, the score tied at 7-7.
The Giants advanced to the Eagles' 20-yard line and Coach Jim Fassel summoned kicker Matt Bryant, who, like so many of his teammates, had been constructing a day full of regret. "I've got no options left," Fassel told Bryant, a former pawnbroker whose football career nearly ended in September. "I've shown a lot of faith in you. You owe me one."
Bryant swung his leg, felt his foot scuff against the Giants Stadium turf, looked upward apprehensively — and saw his 39-yard field goal go through the uprights to beat the Eagles, 10-7, and propel the Giants into the playoffs.
Bryant's kick saved the Giants from a Sunday of emotional torture — their only playoff hope would have been a New Orleans loss — and possibly a lifetime of regret. Tiki Barber had rushed for 203 yards, the second most in Giants' history, but he had also lost three fumbles, and he wept on the bench, overwhelmed by relief. Quarterback Kerry Collins, who had thrown his first interception against the Eagles, raced onto the field. Fassel pumped a fist.
"There was a lot of character and a lot of fight out there," Fassel said. "I told them it was going to take all 60 minutes. I didn't realize it would take more."
This game was a microcosm of the Giants' season, guard Jason Whittle said — an early struggle, a late comeback, resiliency and, inevitably, success. They will play a first-round playoff game on the road next weekend, at Tampa Bay, Green Bay or San Francisco.
The Giants had emerged from the tunnel before the game extremely focused, intense. Jeremy Shockey, the rookie tight end, waved a white towel, whipping it into the air, responding to the towel-waving fans who filled Giants Stadium.
All of them were silenced, almost immediately.
Philadelphia Coach Andy Reid used the Giants' adrenaline against them in his early play-calling. The second-year quarterback A. J. Feeley, playing his fifth game as a stand-in for the injured Donovan McNabb, threw some quick passes, driving the Eagles into Giants' territory. Then Philadelphia ran a reverse, James Thrash carried the ball 20 yards into the end zone, and less than three minutes into the game, the Giants trailed, 7-0. It was the first touchdown allowed by the Giants in the first quarter this season.
The Giants responded by driving to the Eagles' 6-yard line, but Collins threw an interception as he tried to squeeze a pass to Shockey in the end zone. In the second quarter, Collins flipped the ball to Charles Stackhouse, who dove into the end zone for what appeared to be a game-tying touchdown. But Mike Rosenthal, the right tackle, was called for holding; on replay, the call appeared to be suspect.
The Giants kept slamming away, pushing to the Eagles' 3-yard line after the holding call. But Barber slipped as he prepared to take a handoff, and the ball was stripped from his arms by Eagles linebacker Levon Kirkland. The Eagles recovered, and Barber walked off the field, head down. The errors began gnawing at the Giants. "It's like throwing $1 million off a bridge, knowing you'll never see it again," Petitgout said.
The Giants would amass 461 yards of total offense, hold Philadelphia to 65 rushing yards, accomplish virtually everything their game plan had called for — but, because they could not hold onto the ball, they were frittering away their season.
Collins fumbled two snaps in the third quarter. Bryant missed a short field goal. Barber lost another fumble. Other players began encouraging Barber, and the Giants kept trying to reload on the sideline. "It chips away at your head," linebacker Dhani Jones said.
With 13 minutes 45 seconds remaining in regulation, Shockey caught a pass over the middle, was slammed to the ground by safety Michael Lewis and got up waving an arm in celebration. A few plays later, Collins lofted a perfect pass into the end zone to Amani Toomer, 43 yards, a touchdown.
Or not. Rich Seubert, the left guard, was called for holding. Replays again showed that the call might have been questionable.
The Giants advanced to the 7-yard line, and Shockey lined up to the far left of the formation, defended by defensive back Brian Dawkins. The other Eagles blitzed, Collins threw the ball into the air, and Dawkins jumped to intercept.
But Shockey plucked the ball from Dawkins, ripping it away from him with his right hand. When they landed face to face in the end zone, Shockey nodded at Dawkins. Shockey stood and fired the ball into the stands.
Bryant hit the extra point, barely, bouncing the ball off the inside of the right upright and through. The game was tied.
Bryant felt awkward all day, terrible; maybe his blood sugar was low, he said. Matt Allen, the punter and holder, tried to encourage him because the game, and season, could well come down to a kick.
The Giants assumed possession on their 7-yard line with 5:17 left in regulation. They had a long way to go, but they also had a chance to bury the Eagles. Barber ran through the Philadelphia defense for an 8-yard pickup. On the next play, at the 26-yard line, Barber had his third fumble in the game after having three all season. "I couldn't believe it," he said.
The Eagles were already in field-goal range. They kept the ball on the ground to run time off the clock, and then Akers — 30 for 33 this season, the best in the game — trotted onto the field. He was 35 yards away.
Toomer stared at the ground, refusing to watch; many others stared at the ground, as well. The ball was snapped; Jones rushed Akers and waited for the crowd reaction.
The Giants on the field said the ball appeared to hook right at the end, hooking, hooking. No good. Giants fans roared, and the players bounced around the bench happily. "I've got one word to say to you: I missed," Akers said.
Philadelphia won the coin toss to start overtime, but Brandon Short tipped a pass meant for Chad Lewis, and Shaun Williams intercepted at the Giants' 37. Fassel called five running plays, leery of putting the ball into the air, worried about a big mistake. An unsportsmanlike conduct call on Troy Vincent added 15 yards.
And Fassel sent Bryant on the field, the whole crazy season riding on his shoulders. Some of the Giants held hands on the sideline. Bryant looked down, Allen set his hand.
Bryant kicked; Allen heard his foot hit the ground. This has got to carry, Bryant thought immediately. And it did, propelling and saving the Giants.