On the sideline in the final three minutes, Giants Coach Jim Fassel said he saw his team's season melting before his eyes. Standing behind him, linebacker Mike Barrow prayed. A stride behind Barrow, defensive tackle Keith Hamilton turned his back to the field, unable and unwilling to watch.
Eight days ago, in a similar setting — with the Giants trailing and preparing for a last-ditch, game-winning drive — the team's huddle had been quiet, if poised. Today at Giants Stadium, the scene on the field was clamorous and rowdy.
Maybe it was the stakes at hand: a loss to Seattle meant official exclusion from the playoff race. Or maybe it was the bounce from last weekend's comeback victory. Whatever it was, comportment was a casualty of the moment.
"Kerry was screaming, `We're going to win the game!' " running back Tiki Barber said later in the locker room. "Other guys were yelling and jumping in the huddle. I don't know if I've ever seen Kerry or the guys that excited and that confident."
With 2 minutes 52 seconds remaining, the Giants, whose offense had scored only 6 points since the first quarter, were at their 4-yard line and trailed the Seahawks by 4 points. Ninety-six yards later, with only 20 seconds left, Collins concluded a rousing, stunningly efficient drive with a 7- yard touchdown pass to Ike Hilliard. The score gave the Giants a 27-24 victory, and for the second consecutive game, a sloppy Giants effort had concluded with a stirring, improbable rally.
Seconds from elimination as a postseason contender, the Giants' biggest offensive stars — Collins, Hilliard and wide receiver Amani Toomer — resurrected the team again and kept the season's grandest possibilities alive. The Giants (7-7) will go to Philadelphia next week knowing that a victory there will bring them one game behind the Eagles (9-5) in the race for the National Football Conference East title with one game to play. The Giants also trail Tampa Bay (8-6) by one game for the final N.F.C. wild-card spot.
For the Giants to win the division, they would have to defeat Philadelphia on Sunday and Green Bay in their final game Jan. 6 at Giants Stadium. Philadelphia would also have to lose its last game at Tampa Bay. For the Giants to earn a wild- card berth, they have to win their two games and Tampa Bay has to lose its two games because it has the advantage in tie breakers.
In the wake of a second unforeseen come-from-behind victory, the Giants were not entertaining playoff possibilities. "I know we're alive," Fassel said, "and I know as long as we keep winning, we have something going on."
Today's victory left the Giants giddy that their playoff hopes did not perish before a two-day Christmas break. After the touchdown pass to Hilliard, Collins's seventh completion during the final Giants possession, their sideline was bedlam.
Collins ripped his helmet off and threw it to the ground so forcefully that he tore a three-inch gash in his forehead and loosened the face mask. Players were banging into one another near the bench, bumping chests and doing dance steps.
"It's been such a hard, odd year," Barber said. "To be given up for dead this season, and to be down in that game, when you come back it gets you pretty excited."
The winning drive was remarkably like the Giants' last-minute drive to defeat Arizona in their previous game, on Dec. 15. As offensive tackle Lomas Brown said, "It seemed like a rerun, like watching the highlights from last week."
The Giants' offense had stumbled for most of the game, especially in the second half, and their previous drive had lasted three plays. The defensive units for both teams had scored a touchdown, and the Seahawks (7-7) had made fewer mistakes, taking a 24-17 lead early in the third quarter. The Giants cut the deficit to 24-20 but did not seem poised to mount a winning drive.
"The big key at the end, what was really the huge play," Collins said, "was the first pass."
From the 4-yard line, Collins retreated in the pocket and found Toomer, who finished with 8 receptions for 124 yards, along the left sideline for 28 yards.
"When you've just had a big comeback drive the week before, and you get it going right away, you are immediately in a comfort zone," Barbers said. "It's like, you remember the last experience and relax."
Collins, who completed 30 of 47 passes for 338 yards in the game, connected with Toomer again for 11 yards, then completed successive passes to Joe Jurevicius for 18 and 7 yards. The Seahawks were in a prevent defense and giving the Giants the medium-range passes. After a 7- yard completion to Hilliard and an incomplete pass, Collins found Hilliard for another 18 yards, bringing the Giants to the 7-yard line.
The drive and the Giants' season nearly ended when Seattle linebacker Anthony Simmons stepped in front of Collins's next pass and closed both hands around the football before dropping it at the 2-yard line. The second-down pass was also incomplete, but on third down, Collins waited for Hilliard to shake free.
"They were double-teaming our receivers on the outside," Collins said of Toomer and Jurevicius. "Ike had single coverage, and he can break it any of four ways. But it's gotten so I know what he'll do, and I saw that the inside was blocked. I just knew he would plant his foot and break it the other way.
"I waited and threw where I knew he would be. And that's right where he was."
The rally rescued the Giants from another demoralizing home loss. Not much had gone their way before the closing minutes, especially in the first half when Seattle's Shaun Alexander rushed for 78 yards. Alexander also scored the opening touchdown on a 29-yard run past several Giants.
Ron Dayne countered by running 31 yards through the heart of the defense for the tying score in the first quarter. When the Seahawks took a 10-7 lead, Barrow stripped Seattle quarterback Matt Hasselbeck of the football during a sack. Michael Strahan scooped up the fumble and dashed 13 yards into the end zone.
But roughly two minutes later, Collins had the ball knocked loose while trying to throw from his end zone. Seattle's John Randle fell on the ball — Collins's 19th fumble of the season — as Seattle regained the lead.
"Like a lot of our games this year, there were obviously some things we didn't do properly," Fassel said. "But this was a sudden-death playoff atmosphere, and we faced it and didn't quit. Those are tense times. You see the season before your eyes.
"But we've still got another game to play that means something. And when you're done with a game like this, that's all that matters."
Dec. 23, 2001