Antonio Bryant veered right on his route in the fourth quarter today and Giants cornerback Ralph Brown let him pass, knowing there would be help behind him, assuming there would be help. But Brown glanced back and there was only Bryant, sprinting full speed, pursuing the long pass meant to beat the Giants.
Bryant, a Dallas Cowboys receiver, extended his arms, looked up. There was no one around to stop him, no one to keep him from catching the ball; Brown felt utterly helpless.
But Quincy Carter's pass fell beyond Bryant's reach, bouncing at the goal line, and the Giants' 21-17 lead stood. The fourth-quarter touchdown reception by Marcellus Rivers, the Giants' third-string tight end forced into action because of an injury to Jeremy Shockey, stood as the decisive play.
When Giants Coach Jim Fassel meets with his staff Monday, there will be a review of the many injuries sustained or aggravated today, and they will rehash the mistakes, like the blown coverage on Carter's overthrow of Bryant. But the tone will be much different from the tone after last week's debacle against Arizona. The Giants made enough plays to survive today, winning a game they needed badly and improving to 3-2, tied for first place in the National Football Conference East with Philadelphia. Dallas is 2-3.
"This is a very important win for us," said Kerry Collins, who threw for three touchdowns. "It really boosts our confidence."
The confidence the Giants built during training camp and in the first weeks of the regular season disappeared in Arizona during a brutal 21-7 defeat, and Fassel and the players seemed to search for ways to stop what threatened to become an irreversible slide.
In meetings this weekend, Fassel played good cop to defensive tackle Keith Hamilton's bad cop. While Fassel encouraged the players to have more fun in games, Hamilton barked at them, singling out individuals to remind them of their responsibilities.
The Giants played with more verve. After Ike Hilliard and Amani Toomer caught touchdown passes in the first half — the first touchdowns for Giants receivers this season — they happily shoved the offensive coordinator, Sean Payton, as a way to acknowledge his play calling; Payton shoved back, grinning.
The Giants had a 14-10 lead near the end of the first half and assumed possession at their 21 with 16 seconds remaining — a situation virtually identical to the one last week when Collins threw an interception. As Collins prepared to call the play, running back Tiki Barber joked, "If we get to the 40, can we go for it?"
Collins took the snap, kneeled and pumped his hand in a mock celebration.
By that time, the Giants were without Shockey; cornerback Will Peterson, who limped off the field in the first quarter because of his bad toe; and defensive end Kenny Holmes, who was hampered by a hyperextended elbow.
But the Cowboys botched a fake field goal and had a real attempt bounce off the upright, and the Giants established a respectable running game. They finished with 104 yards on the ground after practicing the same running plays more than a dozen times in practice last week, Barber said.
Giants guard Jason Whittle went out with back spasms late in the third quarter and was replaced by Tam Hopkins. A few plays later, Collins was hit as he handed off to Ron Dayne, and the ball fell to the ground.
The Cowboys recovered and began a 13-play drive that lasted almost six minutes, wearing on the Giants' battered defense, and ended with Carter throwing a 5-yard touchdown pass to Bryant. Dallas led, 17-14, and the game seemed to be playing out much like the Arizona defeat.
But when the Giants assumed possession, Barber burst through the right side and charged 23 yards, the team's longest run of the season. Moving into Dallas territory, the Giants had third-and-3 at the Dallas 38, and Collins dropped into the pocket and scanned the field: his two primary options were covered.
Collins then looked left at Dan Campbell, who was running a route that Shockey probably would have, except that because he is not Shockey, Campbell was virtually uncovered. "There's usually someone in front of me," Campbell said later, laughing.
Campbell caught the pass and barged up the field for 20 yards, to the Dallas 18-yard line. Once more, the Giants were inside the red zone. After Barber gained 1 yard, Payton called 24 Double Post, a play Shockey has run repeatedly, lining up in the slot to the right and breaking inward.
But Rivers was standing in for Shockey. He had come off the field in the first quarter, heading for the bench, but Payton stopped him and told him Shockey was hurting. It has been weeks since Rivers practiced with the first team, and as the Giants broke the huddle, Rivers jogged to the left. Collins gestured with a sweep of his hand — over here — for Rivers to move to the right side.
Dallas linebacker Dexter Coakley stood across the line from Rivers, a safety behind him. But at the snap of the ball, the safety moved to double-team Toomer, and Hilliard was blanketed on the other side. Rivers, one-on-one with Coakley, turned inward and got a step.
Collins fired the pass to Rivers; he caught it, beating Coakley easily to the ball and the end zone, his first catch of the season. The other Giants bounced and danced, giving a hero's welcome to Collins when he came back to the sideline.
With 2 minutes 53 seconds remaining and the Giants clinging to their 4-point lead, Brown let Bryant run past him, free and unabated to the end zone; Brown was told afterward that he should have covered Bryant the whole way, that were was no safety help, as he had expected. But Brown let Bryant go and Carter missed him.
"Players make plays and I didn't make one," Carter said. "One thing I didn't want to do was leave the ball up in the air too long. I just overthrew."
Knowing how devastating the mistake would have been, Brown thanked a higher power for the reprieve.