The ball was sitting there, waiting to be scooped up, the result of another special teams nightmare that, like a razor-sharp dagger, was about to finally be plunged into this sickly Giants season.
Already trailing 17-16, with the Metrodome crowd whipped into a frenzy and the Vikings showing why they were one of the two unbeaten teams in the NFL, the Giants yesterday, as running back Tiki Barber said, were "teetering." A punt by Jeff Feagles was blocked early in the fourth quarter, the football coming to a stop on the Giants' 5-yard line.
A strange thing happened on the way to the latest Giants disaster. A backup linebacker named Wesley Mallard alertly picked up the ball and scampered 20 yards to bail the Giants out of trouble.
The bounce went the way of the Giants. Buy a lottery ticket today. There's something in the air.
"We got a break, we were very lucky, but I'm not going to apologize for being lucky," Kerry Collins said, "because we've been unlucky a lot lately."
Moments later, Michael Strahan was dropping Daunte Culpepper for sacks on consecutive plays and Jeremy Shockey was rampaging through the Minnesota defense for 46 yards and Barber was muscling in for a touchdown. The Giants, blessed by some good fortune, some huge moments from their best players and some big moments from the least-known among them, turned the Vikings (6-1) into losers for the first time and along the way saved their season with a resounding 29-17 victory.
"You come in here and beat the undefeated Vikings at home when you're 2-4," left tackle Luke Petitgout said. "If that's not a building block, there's no such thing."
Pulling off this upset was a collective effort, starting with Jim Fassel's decision to finally take the clamps off his offense, allowing the resilient Collins to fire away for 375 passing yards and two touchdowns to Hilliard. Even through they were torched in the first half by Randy Moss (five catches, 121 yards at halftime), the Giants' defense, using cornerback Will Allen and a variety of zone coverages, limited Moss to two catches for four yards (one for a TD) in the second half.
The Giants (3-4) avoided the first four-game losing streak of Fassel's career, and they had to earn this one. With the reassembled offensive line holding up, Collins completed his first nine passes. A horrible interception thrown by Collins from the Vikings' 9-yard line in the second quarter brought back familiar bad vibes, but he orchestrated an efficient two-minute drill to set up Brett Conway's second field goal for a 13-10 lead at the half.
A flea-flicker resulted in a 51-yard gain for Amani Toomer and another Conway field goal to make it 16-10, but Moss scored and the Vikings were ahead with 6:22 left in the third quarter. The blocked punt could have doomed the Giants, but it didn't.
Shockey's catch-and-run came as a bolt to enliven the Giants, as he ran through linebacker Chris Claiborne and over safety Brian Russell, running to the 2-yard line before Barber finished the job.
"They had me against a linebacker and I thought I could win," Shockey said. "[Fassel] wasn't listening to me, I wanted to come earlier to it, I'm glad he had it in his hip pocket."
The two-point conversion pass failed and the Giants had a 22-17 lead with 5:29 remaining. On the very next play, Culpepper looked at receiver Keenan Howry but instead found Frank Walker, the rookie cornerback making his NFL debut. It was the first interception all season for Culpepper and it put the Giants on the Minny 26.
There was no sitting on the ball this time for Fassel. On third-and-7, he went for broke and was repaid when Hilliard cagily slipped past cornerback Brian Williams on an insurance 14-yard TD.
"It's good for this team," Fassel said. "We've been through a crisis early, maybe it's going to put us in a mind-frame for what we have to do the rest of the season."