As a rookie in 1996, Tiki Barber quickly earned a job as the New York Giants' running back. Just as quickly, he lost it.
But his up-and-down career hit a new high Monday night when he almost single-handedly beat the Dallas Cowboys, outperforming Deion Sanders, who pulled a similar act on a Monday night against New York last season.
Barber's 85-yard punt return broke a 3-3 tie with just 7:50 left in regulation. Then, after Emmitt Smith's 2-yard TD run with 1:57 left tied it for Dallas, Barber went 56 yards to the Dallas 3 with a short pass from Kent Graham, setting up Brad Daluiso's 21-yard field goal with 1 second left.
``Our main focus this week was not to let Deion make any plays,'' said Barber, who like Sanders, wears No. 21. ``He didn't make the plays. The other 21 made the plays.''
For the Giants (3-3), the win made up for a 31-7 thrashing last season in which Sanders returned a punt 59 yards for a touchdown, an interception 71 yards for a score and caught a 55-yard pass to set up another TD.
Barber had 233 all-purpose yards, which were 5 yards more than the Giants had from scrimmage.
Dallas didn't do much better. With Michael Irvin out, New York played eight and nine men near the line of scrimmage and held the Cowboys (3-2) to just 24 yards on the ground. Smith, who came into the game needing 25 yards to reach 13,000 for his career, made it, but just barely - he had 26 yards in 22 carries.
That's what made the special teams so special.
``Coming to the game, all the attention was on myself and Deion. What is Deion going to do to hurt us?'' said Giants punter Brad Maynard, who averaged just 35.6 yards per kick, but got four out of bounds and two high enough to be downed. Sanders ended up with just one return for 10 yards and actually got called for pass interference, a rarity because teams don't often throw to him. The game ended on a wacky note and a bad one for the Giants.
Daluiso's field goal came with 1 second left, meaning Dallas had one shot at taking back a kickoff.
Sanders took it and threw it to Kevin Mathis - obviously forward. As a flag went down to negate the play, Mathis threw it to Signor Mobley, who went into the end zone.
There was no TD, but Daluiso tore a ligament in his left knee trying to tackle Mathis and is gone for the season, meaning the Giants will have sift through the unemployed kicker pool to find a replacement.
The game was dominated by the two defenses.
``It was frustrating for me, frustrating for all of us,'' said Smith, who was consistently stifled by linebackers Jessie Armstead, Ryan Phillips and Corey Widmer as well as strong safety Sam Garnes, who spent most of the night as a fourth linebacker.
``I don't ever remember running the ball outside as much as we did tonight, and every time I slipped away from one guy, there were two other guys there to tackle me.''
The Giants also benefited from knowledge of the Meadowlands winds that swirled for most of the game at 10-20 mph.
With the clock running down in the third quarter and Dallas about to attempt a field goal, Fassel called time to force the Cowboys to kick into the wind. Richie Cunningham's 41-yard attempt hit the right upright.
``It's worse than it looks down there,'' Fassel said. ``The wind was swirling and it's tough for a kicker who's not used to it at that end of the field. I figured it might be worth it and it was.''
But Fassel didn't gamble in the second quarter, after Garnes' interception set the Giants off on an 80-yard, 18-play drive that ate up almost 10 minutes. With fourth down and less than a yard at the Dallas 10, he sent on Daluiso to kick a 27-yard field goal that tied the game at 3.
``I just wanted to tie it, '' Fassel said. ``I figured we'd have to make a big play later, and Tiki made it.''
Two, in fact.