A Giants lead that had once been 17 points was reduced to 2 with more than eight minutes remaining, and Kerry Collins jogged onto the field, clapped his hands and leaned into the huddle.
The Giants' defense had performed exceptionally, frustrating Rams quarterback Kurt Warner and scoring a touchdown with an interception return, but the St. Louis offense was relentless; Collins knew the defensive players were exhausted. He had seen defensive tackle Keith Hamilton slumped on the bench, his legs cramping, and others sitting with their heads down.
Collins glanced around the huddle, into the eyes of first-year starters, a rookie and a few veterans. "Hey, it's on us," Collins said, and he paused and smiled. "And you've got to love it."
The players responded, driving downfield, and as they held the ball, the defense had a meeting of its own. "It's on us," the defensive coordinator Johnnie Lynn barked. "Finish the job."
And the Giants did, stunning the defending National Football Conference champion Rams on their own field, 26-21, today. Having beaten a team that had forever haunted them, the Giants (1-1) suddenly look much more like a playoff contender than a team in a rebuilding year.
"This was kind of the theme of the week: we're all going to cross the finish line," Giants Coach Jim Fassel said. "We left some unfinished business down here last year, and I'm really proud of this group the way they played."
Collins completed 22 of his 26 attempts, setting a regular-season Giants record with a completion percentage of 84.6 percent, and threw for 307 yards. The offensive line pushed and shoved for 103 rushing yards. Matt Bryant, who was jet-skiing in Texas two weeks ago and contemplating his next career after being cut by the Giants, hammered four field goals and is 6 for 6 this season.
The Rams, heavy favorites to win the last season's Super Bowl, are 0-2. "I don't think anybody does anything well when they panic," Rams Coach Mike Martz said. "We've got to fix what we're not doing well and move on."
The Giants lost to the Rams here last year, 15-14, pounding Warner, pressuring him with a four-man front. Today, the Rams usually committed a tight end or running back to help right tackle John St. Clair with Giants defensive end Michael Strahan, and Warner had time. But with just four receivers running patterns against the Giants' linebackers and defensive backs — the Giants opened the game with six cornerbacks and safeties — Warner struggled early. The Giants took a 3-0 lead into the second quarter, and the sense of unease among Rams fans began building.
The Giants had third-and-8 at the Rams' 28-yard line in the second quarter, and as Collins broke the huddle, the rookie tight end Jeremy Shockey jogged to the right, setting up along the sideline, very wide. Linebacker Tommy Polley crouched across the line from him, and Collins glanced that way. This is the matchup Collins envisioned from early in minicamp, Shockey and his speed against a linebacker. At the snap, Shockey sprinted straight, turned inward, and Polley mirrored his movement. But then Shockey broke right, and Polley was beaten.
After Collins's pass reached Shockey and Shockey reached the end zone, a 28-yard catch and run, he spiked the ball against the artificial surface so violently that it careened horizontally. Confused murmurs filled the Edward Jones Dome.
Trailing by 10-0, the Rams' offense came out intending to restore order. But Kenny Holmes, stunting with Hamilton, curled inside and sacked Warner. On the next play, Holmes stunted to the middle again, reached up and tipped Warner's pass, and the ball hurtled high into the air, tumbling into the arms of Jason Sehorn, who returned it 31 yards for a touchdown. The Giants had a 17-0 lead, their first 17-point lead since the N.F.C. championship game in the 2000 season.
But the Giants' defense was on the field for 19 of 22 plays during a second-quarter span, and it began growing weary. A 17-0 halftime lead was cut to 10 on a touchdown pass by Warner, and St. Louis got a 1-yard touchdown run from Marshall Faulk on its first drive of the second half to make the score 17-14. Once more, it seemed the Giants might let a game get away, as they did repeatedly last season and as they had against the San Francisco 49ers in the opening game this year.
Collins had completed 12 of his first 13 attempts, zipping passes into the soft spots of the Rams' two-deep zone. St. Louis began applying extra pressure on Collins midway through the Giants' first drive of the second half, just as San Francisco did. The Giants withstood the first blitzes, as Collins completed consecutive passes to Amani Toomer and Ike Hilliard, advancing the ball to the St. Louis 8 with about seven minutes left in the third quarter.
On third-and-goal, Tiki Barber lined up wide right, uncovered — and unseen by Collins, who took the snap, settled into the pocket and did not see defensive end Leonard Little charging. Little buckled Collins at the waist with a crushing hit, and the ball came loose, with St. Louis defensive backs Aeneas Williams and Kim Herring in full pursuit and an open field in front of them. But the side judge, Mike Rutherford, rushed in, waving his arms, signaling that Collins was down. No fumble. "We got a break, maybe," said Collins, who admitted he thought he had fumbled.
The Rams' assistant coaches and players began protesting, and when a replay of Little's hit was shown on the scoreboard, the Rams' assistants began screaming. It appeared some of them gestured for Martz to challenge the play, and Martz seemed to yell back at them, as Bryant rushed onto the field and kicked a 32-yard field goal, increasing the Giants' lead to 20-14.
Bryant kicked another field goal early in the fourth quarter, increasing the Giants' lead to 23-14, but the Rams answered again, moving 69 yards on six plays, before Faulk bounced off a tackler and ran 8 yards for a touchdown. Hamilton was on the bench, sore, and Cornelius Griffin walked the sideline slightly bent at the waist, out of the game with back trouble. Linebacker Micheal Barrow tried to think of something to say to keep the defense going.
Before he could speak, however, Lynn gathered the defensive players in a circle, reminding them of what they had talked about all week. It was posted in their locker room: finish the job. Lynn punctuated his remarks with a jab of his hand, and Barrow added something he remembered Deion Sanders saying: You can't worry about making a mistake. Make a play.
Collins and the offense bought them time, moving down the field for four precious minutes, time for the defensive players to catch their breath; the importance of that respite was huge, Hamilton said. Bryant kicked a 25-yard field goal with 4 minutes 23 seconds left, giving the Giants a 26-21 lead.
"It's on us," Barrow yelled again, tapping his helmet against that of Brandon Short, who then turned and tapped helmets with Strahan.
The Rams advanced to their 40, fourth-and-inches, little more than three minutes remaining, and Barrow thought Warner might try to sneak for a first down. But he didn't recognize the formation, Faulk standing at Warner's side. A run, Barrow said, to the left, where Short and Dhani Jones were blitzing, on Lynn's orders. Faulk was stopped a yard behind the line, and Strahan knocked the ball loose and recovered the fumble. The Giants began whooping on the sideline.
St. Louis would have one last possession, which Will Peterson ended with an interception. The Giants had finished the job, on offense and on defense.