With about two minutes left and the Rams hanging their hopes on a fourth-and-8 at the Giants' 24-yard line, four Giants defensive linemen looked at one another and did not have to say anything. After all their plays, all their sacks, all the havoc they had created, they had to do it once more to clinch a 23-13 victory on opening day at Giants Stadium.
It could have been any of them, really, the way this game had gone. They had taken turns pummeling Rams quarterback Kurt Warner with six sacks, recovering three of his six fumbles and scoring one of the Giants' two touchdowns on one of them, turning Warner's usual role of engineering the Rams' high-tech offense into something closer to a ride on a mechanical bull. Warner ended up in a hospital with a concussion.
But on the final play, Warner was still in there, lofting one last pass. Defensive tackle Keith Hamilton threw his arm in the air, bumping the pass off its intended path, sending it bouncing harmlessly to the ground.
It was fitting that closure had ridden on his fingertips. It was his turn.
"I don't know what the call was, but we were coming after him," Hamilton said. "We're getting back to where we need to be on defense."
There were plenty of ups and downs along the way, mistakes to go with the triumphs. The Giants were not sure what to think for a while. At halftime, they had lost three fumbles to match the Rams' turnovers but held a 10-6 lead.
The offense came back with a strong second half, riding Tiki Barber's 146 yards rushing, and quarterback Kerry Collins made enough key completions to hold up the offense's end. It helped that Matt Bryant knocked in all three of his field-goal attempts, including one from 47 yards.
"It was a very strange first half," said Collins, who was 14 of 26 for 202 yards with no touchdowns and no interceptions. "The way our defense was playing, we just needed to put a few drives together and make some plays when we needed to make them, and I think we did that."
But the newly reinforced defensive line took center stage early and ended the game at the forefront. Two high draft picks - William Joseph and Osi Umenyiora - and the free agent Keith Washington bolstered the combination of Michael Strahan, Hamilton and Kenny Holmes. As a group, they had gotten together before the game and decided to use their new strength to their advantage. They discussed how many times they needed to hit Warner. They arrived at a number (22) and set out to reach it. They are not sure if they did - they will need the films to count - but they came close enough.
"I think it was the key to this whole game," Holmes said. "No. 1 was to get pressure on him" - Warner - "and No. 2 was to stop Marshall Faulk."
Faulk, a one-time N.F.L. most valuable player, was limited to 28 yards rushing and 27 yards receiving.
"They did everything right today," Faulk said. "And we did everything wrong today. If you turn the ball over, that's what's going to happen."
The Giants sacked Warner five times in the first half, and Warner fumbled every time. The Rams lost three of those fumbles. The biggest came in the Rams' end zone, when Joseph got the sack and Holmes fell on the ball. That gave the Giants a 7-3 lead with 2 minutes 10 seconds left in the first quarter.
Warner never looked comfortable, with good reason. "I think anybody would be rattled if you were getting hit every other play," Holmes said. "For a while there, that's what we were doing. We just kept hitting him."
The next sack, registered by linebacker Micheal Barrow, turned into a fumble recovered by Holmes. After a 77-yard pass play from Collins to Amani Toomer, the Giants settled for a 24-yard field goal by Bryant for a 10-3 lead.
The Giants got their only offensive touchdown with 5:03 left in the third quarter. Most of the work was done by Barber, whose two big runs got them to the 1, but Brian Mitchell turned it into a touchdown with a 1-yard run. It was a rare appearance on offense for Mitchell, a kick-return specialist, but Coach Jim Fassel apparently plans to use him as a third-down back.
The Rams threatened continually after that - Warner ended up with 342 yards passing - but when it mattered, the Giants' defense came up with more big plays. The reserve tackle Lance Legree knocked a ball loose and Washington recovered. Safety Shaun Williams got a sack and a forced fumble. Safety Omar Stoutmire intercepted a pass in the third quarter, leading to another Giants field goal.
The Rams scored one touchdown, on a fabulous 37-yard catch early in the fourth quarter by Torry Holt, making it 23-13 with 14:03 left. They reached deep into Giants territory twice more, but the Giants' defense held. It was a distinct departure from how they left the field in last season's playoff loss to San Francisco after a fourth-quarter defensive collapse.
"On the sideline, somebody said comeback and I said, 'Don't even use that word,' " Strahan said. The Giants celebrated their victory, but they did not consider this any kind of milestone. They expected to win, so it wasn't exactly cause for a party. They head into next week's Monday night matchup with conference rival Dallas with a lot to think about - both positive and negative.
"Well, it beat the alternative, I know that," Collins said. "A win is a win in this league, you take them any way you can get them. Even though it wasn't our best effort offensively, we did what we needed to do."
Mostly what they needed to do was stand by and cheer their defensive line. "The feeling is good," Strahan said. "But not satisfied."