The Giants have had some fun afternoons in Texas Stadium. In 1997, Jim Fassel's first year as the Giants head coach, they stepped onto the Dallas Cowboys' home field a week after clinching the NFC East title and enjoyed an easy victory in their season finale. Three years later, they secured the division title on that same field.
Sunday was different. The Giants limped into their annual visit to the heart of Texas weakened by injuries, saddled with a six-game losing streak and knowing Fassel's tenure was two games from extinction. The Cowboys, meanwhile, needed only a victory to secure a postseason berth after three successive 5-11 seasons.
The game went according to script. The Giants generated little offense and lost, 19-3. But the effort they put forth, and especially the optimism they have for a brighter future, helped lift the veil of gloom in the post-game locker room.
"We're going to have our time," said split end Amani Toomer. "The Giants are going to be back. It's just not our time this year. And if you accept that and move on, you don't have any problems. They came back from 5-11 and had a good season. I'm not upset about that. I wish we would have been able to knock them out. But that didn't happen."
"You log these bad memories in the back of your head, and you wait for our chance," said running back Tiki Barber. "You remember these things. All these fans that I see around, I tell them, these bad times make the good times better. That's what we look for, that's what we think about."
Unlike last week's 45-7 loss in New Orleans, the Giants fought the entire game.
"They tried hard," Fassel said. "There's no question."
"We fought, and I think Dallas didn't expect us to come out as hard as we did and play as hard as we did," Barber said. "We got some good effort, but we're just not good enough right now."
Not everyone was placated simply because the Giants played harder and better than they have recently.
"I don't feel better," safety Omar Stoutmire said. "We still lost the game. I don't feel good at all. You can pick positive points out defensively, but we didn't win the game. Our goal when we go out there is to win, and we didn't get the job done - again. There are no moral victories because we played better. We didn't get the job done."
This was the Giants' first game since last week's announcement that Fassel's tenure will end following next week's home game against Carolina. Fassel was asked if it was strange to coach the game under those circumstances.
"I didn't even think about it," he said.
That's not surprising, considering this game looked like many others since the Giants' last victory on Nov. 2. The seven consecutive losses matches their seven-game losing streak in 1994. They have not lost eight in a row since 1980.
The Giants fell to 4-11, their first 11-loss season since 1995. They last lost 12 games in a season in 1983.
The Giants failed to score a touchdown for the second time this season (they kicked two field goals in a 17-6 loss at New England on Oct. 12). It was the seventh consecutive game, and the tenth time in 15 games this season, that the Giants failed to score more than one touchdown. In their seven-game losing streak they have scored six touchdowns, five on offense. The Giants have not scored a second-half point in four straight games.
The Giants' defensive played nobly. The Cowboys scored only one touchdown, none in the final three periods. Dallas twice had a first-and-goal at the Giants' four-yard line, but had to settle for field goals each time. Michael Strahan sacked Quincy Carter three times and Dhani Jones had 11 unassisted tackles.
But the Giants' offense found Dallas' No. 1-ranked defense virtually impenetrable, totaling just 213 yards (54 on the ground) and 10 first downs. Jesse Palmer was sacked five times and was under constant pressure.
The Giants' advanced into Cowboys territory three times, once in the game's waning moments. Their deepest penetration was to the Dallas 12-yard line in the third period, after Toomer's 40-yard reception gave them a first down at the 20. The Giants soon faced a fourth-and-two from the 12. Fassel, realizing it might be the Giants' best opportunity to get into the end zone, called timeout and decided to go for it. The play was a rollout for quarterback Jesse Palmer, who was dropped for a five-yard loss by safety Roy Williams.
Rookie tight end Jason Witten scored the Cowboys' only touchdown on a 36-yard reception in the first period. Billy Cundiff kicked four field goals to give him 11 against the Giants this season, a record for most field goals by a kicker against one team in a single season.
Cundiff's fourth and longest field goal, a 49-yarder with 11:23 remaining in the fourth period, increased the Cowboys' advantage to 16 points.
Cundiff extended Dallas' lead to 16-3 with a 21-yard field goal with 10:03 remaining in the third period. The Cowboys did not get into the end zone despite having a first down at the Giants' four.
Rookie Zuriel Smith put the Cowboys in scoring position at the Giants' 22-yard line with a 46-yard punt return after the Giants went three-and-out to start the second half. Troy Hambrick picked up 18 yards on a pair of runs to the four.
But Hambrick was then stopped for no gain, a pass to Richie Anderson picked up two yards and Carter was dropped for another no gain by Mike Barrow. That brought Cundiff into the game to kick the short field goal.
Cundiff's second field goal, a 42-yarder as time expired in the second period, gave Dallas a 13-3 halftime lead.
The Cowboys had taken possession at the Giants' 38-yard line after Jeff Feagles punt out of the end zone. An 11-yard pass to Terry Glenn put Dallas in position for Cundiff to pad their lead.
Moments earlier, the Cowboys appeared to take a 16-3 lead after the officials ruled that Tiki Barber had fumbled after he was hit by safety Roy Williams while coming out of the end zone. The ball was recovered by linebacker Dat Nguyen and after a conference including several officials, referee Mike Carey announced that it was a Dallas touchdown. However, television replays showed that Barber was in control of the ball when he put it down on the one-yard line. After an official review the call was overturned, and Carey told the crowd that the Giants had a fourth down on their own one. Feagles then punted out of his own end zone.
"I knew it wasn't a fumble," Barber said. "It was the right play by me. I was avoiding a safety."
Dallas held a 10-3 lead after one period on Whitten's touchdown reception and Cundiff's field goal. Bryant kicked a three-pointer for the Giants.
Whitten broke a 3-3 tie when he hauled in a 36-yard touchdown pass from Carter with 2:22 remaining in the quarter. It was the first career score for Whitten, a rookie third-round draft choice from Tennessee. On first down from the Giants' 36-yard line, Whitten eluded safety Johnnie Harris, caught Carter's pinpoint pass at the five and stepped into the end zone.
The touchdown capped a six-play, 86-yard drive that began with a 24-yard pass to Terry Glenn.
Bryant had tied the score at 3-3 with a 45-yard field goal at the end of the Giants' first possession. The Giants moved from their own 29-yard line to the Dallas 26, thanks largely to a 25-yard pass to fullback Jim Finn, who caught the ball and rumbled alone up the left sideline until he was tackled by Williams. That gave the Giants a first down on the Cowboys' 41-yard line. Six plays later, Bryant was summoned.
Cundiff's 24-yard field goal just 2:08 into the game gave Dallas a quick 3-0 lead. The Cowboys demonstrated immediately that they would attack the Giants' depleted secondary, as Carter threw a 64-yard pass to Joey Galloway on the very first snap. It was the longest pass allowed by the Giants this season and the second-longest play overall. The previous long pass surrendered by the Giants was a 53-yarder from Brad Johnson to Charles Lee at Tampa Bay on Nov. 24. The longest play given up by the Giants this year was a 68-yard touchdown run on an end-around by Miami's James McKnight on Oct. 5.
Galloway's reception gave the Cowboys a first down at the Giants' four-yard line. Andre Gurode's false start penalty moved Dallas back five yards. Troy Hambrick got three yards back on a run up the middle, but after two Carter incompletions, Cundiff came on to put the Cowboys on the scoreboard.
"I think a lot of guys out there today were playing for pride," center Chris Bober said. "We didn't let anyone walk over us today. We're going to play hard. We did a lot of good things today, just not enough to win the ballgame. We do play for pride. That's the only reason we need."