When the fax of the offensive game plan arrived at his apartment last Tuesday night, the cover sheet made Kerry Collins smile.
"Sean Payton always puts a message on the cover sheet," the Giants' quarterback was saying now, referring to the offensive coordinator. "The message on the cover sheet for this game was, `John Cougar Mellencamp, The Best Stuff We Do.' Meaning this is the stuff we've been doing since Day 1 in training camp. All we need to do is execute the things we know best and the things that we do best and we're going to be successful in this game."
And in the virtually perfect 41-0 rout of the Vikings that put the Giants into Super Bowl XXXV against the Baltimore Ravens, Collins turned a fax into facts.
Smoothly and accurately, Collins completed 28 of 39 passes for 381 yards and 5 touchdowns, two so quick that the Giants were up by 14-0 before the Viking offense got on the field.
"I was calm, very calm," Collins said. "I knew what we had to do; we had a great plan. I knew the approach I had to take, and so I was calm. I was ready. That first drive, I hit two passes and then hit Ike Hilliard on the touchdown."
After the Vikings fumbled the kickoff and Lyle West recovered at their 18-yard line, Collins found fullback Greg Comella in the end zone.
"We thought the matchups outside were in our favor," Payton said. "When we've asked Kerry to throw the ball down the field and underneath, he's responded. Our plays were similar to plays that St. Louis, Indianapolis and Green Bay had used to beat the Vikings."
And the quarterback that nobody in the National Football League wanted in 1999 except Ernie Accorsi, the Giants' general manager, suddenly deserved to be put up there on a pedestal with such celebrated Giant passers as Phil Simms, Y. A. Tittle and Charlie Conerly.
Only Simms ever had a better game — 22 out of 25 for 268 yards and 3 touchdowns in the 39-20 victory over the Broncos in Super Bowl XXI.
"I wasn't quite as efficient as that," Collins said of Simms's stats. "That's kind of hard to beat. I'm just glad I could play well for this team."
When Collins was out of a job, when he had been released by the New Orleans Saints after having been expelled by the Carolina Panthers for carousing and uttering a racial slur, the Giants were the only team that pursued him. Accorsi checked him out with Joe Paterno, who coached Collins at Penn State, and signed him to a four-year $16.9 million contract that seemed excessive, especially when no other team was bidding for him.
Now, with Collins having taken charge of the Giants' offense after having taken charge of his life, that $16.9 million is a bargain. "Regardless of anything that's happened in the past," Collins said last week, "I think by doing things the way I have the past two years, understanding what it takes to be a good player in this league, to do things the right way, I think that's given me a chance to be here, along with coming to an organization so supportive and so helpful in getting my career back on track. I've always felt that if I don't hurt myself, I could be successful."
Although the National Football Conference championship trophy was presented to the co-owners Wellington Mara and Robert Tisch at midfield before most of the 79,310 delirious parishioners who wouldn't leave, Collins carried it around the stadium and into the locker room.
"I was unbelievably excited," he said, "but with a sense of remembering what it took to get to this point. You get beat up and beat down and people call you `loser' and all that kind of stuff, it's going to make you tough. That's why it made that moment sweet, but you remember things, too. But I'm just proud to be in this locker room with these guys more than anything."
In that locker room were several Giants from the Super Bowl XXI and XXV champion teams enjoying their alumni reunion — Lawrence Taylor, Harry Carson, Carl Banks, Ottis Anderson, Leonard Marshall, Phil McConkey, Brad Benson.
L. T. had addressed the Giants after Saturday's practice, telling them how "proud we — myself and my teammates — are of you as a team" rather than giving them a pep talk. With a blue "56" jersey peeking through his black overcoat, L. T., along with Carson and Anderson, watched the game from near the end of the Giants' bench.
"To have L. T. say something, Harry Carson, if that doesn't motivate you, I don't know what will," defensive end Michael Strahan said. "L. T. was saying, `You've got to stay on 'em.' Harry told me, `Lawrence and I were just talking that we'd like to pitch a shutout.' Hey, we gave it to them. Give those guys what they want."
Kerry Collins had already given himself the game of his life — so far, at least.
"I told Coach Fassel when Kerry got here," Strahan said, "and all of the things were written about his problems, I said the second he takes us to the Super Bowl and wins it for us, those people will be hugging him. I told Kerry after the game: `I'm honored to play with you. I'm honored to have you as a quarterback.' He did a phenomenal job of turning his life around. It shows you can do some great things in life."
Such as go to the Super Bowl with a good chance to win it.