With Collins, it'll be a Kerry Christmas or a Blue one

It didn't take much for Kerry Collins to outplay Danny Wuerffel or Chad Hutchinson the last two weeks.

All he had to do was show up.

Now he steps up in class.

The Giants maneuvered their way back into the playoff race with victories over the dreadful Redskins and even more dreadful Cowboys along with help from the Saints and Falcons. They are guaranteed to keep their season going into at least the final week against the Eagles if they can win in Indianapolis.

After the Giants had no trouble with Triple-A quarterbacks the last two weeks, Collins must now outplay Peyton Manning, one of the elite players in the league.

This is the time of year when even more responsibility falls on the quarterbacks. One bad interception can mean the end of the season. "It falls on me every week," Collins said yesterday. "It's not just these next two weeks. It's like that every game."

And he happens to like that. "If you don't, you shouldn't be playing," he said.

Collins proved two years ago he can take the Giants to the Super Bowl. Now he must get them back into the playoffs. But even two victories don't guarantee they will get in. But if they don't win twice, it virtually guarantees they won't be playing in January.

The Giants gave up control of their own destiny when they lost to the Texans. Any team that loses to Houston has no right to control its own destiny.

Manning is in the upper echelon of quarterbacks in the NFL. Collins is not. But he might squeeze into the top 10. Collins has three Pro Bowl-caliber pieces around him in Tiki Barber, Amani Toomer and Jeremy Shockey. And Collins has had flashes of Pro Bowl play this year, too. Just not enough.

"I think at times I've played better than I've ever played," he said. "I think overall, from a consistency standpoint, it's probably my best year. I'd like to have more touchdowns. That's an area I'd like to improve on in the future. I feel like I'm coming into my best years of my career."

The Giants have not beaten a team that currently has a winning record, and the list of elite quarterbacks they've faced this season is not very long: Jeff Garcia, Kurt Warner and Donovan McNabb. They've played another two on the next level: Steve McNair and Mark Brunell.

And now for the first time this season, the Giants will likely have to win a shootout. Manning leads the AFC and is third in the league with 17 interceptions, but he also has thrown 23 touchdowns, tied for fifth in the NFL. He was phenomenal last week in bringing the Colts back from a 16-0 halftime deficit to beat the Browns in Cleveland, 28-23.

Collins says his approach never changes when there's a great quarterback on the other sideline. "I worry about what I'm doing, what we're doing and what we need to do against the defense," he said.

The Giants offense picked up after JimFassel took over the play-calling, and the quicker pace has benefitted Collins, although his overall numbers are still average: 14 TDs, 13 INTs. But breaking it down, he had five TDs and eight INTs in the seven games Sean Payton called the plays and has nine TDs and five INTs in the seven games Fassel has called the plays. He has not thrown an INT in the last three games.

The pressure will be on the Giants to stop Manning-to-Marvin Harrison, who linebacker Mike Barrow called "the best thing since Magic Johnson and Kareem." But the pressure will be on Collins to match them. Collins-to-Amani Toomer is not Manning-Harrison, but they have developed into one of the best combinations in Giants history.

If the Giants don't make the playoffs, they are going to look back at so many games they should have won. But the most destructive was game against Houston. Not only was it embarrassing, it also destroyed the momentum of a three-game winning streak and had a carryover the next week against Tennessee, a game the Giants gave away.

The Giants have developed a pattern under Fassel of playing their best down the stretch. It happened in the Super Bowl year. It happened last year when they nearly salvaged the season with a late run. And now, again, the Giants are playing their best as the season winds down, making you wonder where this team has been all year.

"I don't think it's too late," Collins said.

If it's not, then it has to start with Collins outplaying Manning. This time of the year, it's up to the quarterbacks.
Dec. 19,02