For more than a month, there had been very little for the Giants to celebrate. But in the moments after their last-minute comeback victory over the Arizona Cardinals on Saturday, Giants coaches and players happily gathered in formal and informal settings near Giants Stadium. They let out more than a sigh of relief. Many wondered why more games this season could not have been like the 17-13 victory over the Cardinals — flawed and tense, scary but ultimately successful.
"The 1-point losses to St. Louis and Philadelphia came up," said Coach Jim Fassel, whose Giants are 6-7. "But you can drive yourself crazy looking back sometimes. The season is what it is."
Relaxed for the first time in weeks, most Giants and their coaches instead wondered what effect Saturday's stirring, shockingly efficient last drive might have on the remaining three games of the season.
"A couple of players mentioned to me that this might be good for Kerry," Fassel said of quarterback Kerry Collins, whose leadership, decision making and passing accuracy in the final minutes won the game. "When you're the quarterback, you get paid to do that, lead the team down the field. But the way that game was going — guys were dropping balls left and right — it took some guts to stand in there and come back. When you lose, you're an open target. Maybe this will be a confidence booster."
Collins made a series of quick, darting passes on the drive, but the biggest play might have been on third-and-10 at the Cardinals' 15-yard line. Considering the Giants' miserable record scoring touchdowns inside the opposition's 20-yard line, the game, which Arizona led by 3 points, seemed destined for overtime — if the Giants did not hurt themselves with a fumble, interception or devastating sack that would have ruined their field-goal position.
The Giants, however, were not playing scared; they wanted to take a shot at the end zone on the third-down play. But when Collins settled into the pocket, neither Amani Toomer nor Ike Hilliard was open in the end zone. What Collins did next may have been the crucial point of the game.
Collins stood in the pocket and waited. No happy feet, no panicked rollout, no forced throw into double coverage. Finally, running back Tiki Barber, the third option on the play, released across the middle in front of the linebackers. Collins fired the ball to Barber on the run for 11 yards. The Giants won the game two plays later on another well-thrown, well-timed Collins throw.
"There were a lot of things in that drive that went exactly as you want them to go," Fassel said. "Earlier, Kerry hit Amani on a slant route for 14 yards. We had tried to hit that same pass four times before and missed every one. Three times it was dropped and once the ball was a little low. Why all of a sudden does it work? I don't know."
Yesterday, Fassel conceded he was also unsure how he was going to approach the unsettled situation involving the Giants' remote playoff chances. Last week, Fassel forbade any talk of playoffs, asking the Giants to focus on stopping their three-game losing streak.
What now? Fassel admitted he was torn between using playoff possibilities as a motivational factor and keeping the players concentrating on the present. The Giants are host to Seattle on Sunday.
"I've got kind of a conflict in my own mind," Fassel said. "I like to keep them informed of things, but I don't know, we have to win all our games and we really have no control over the race. We've also never been out of it."
The Giants were rooting yesterday for Chicago, Indianapolis and Detroit because it aided their chase for a wild-card berth — and all three won. For the same reason, they will hope St. Louis defeats New Orleans tonight.
After Saturday, Fassel said he was now confident his team would not give up on the season. "Psychologically, if they were ready to give up, it would have happened when the Cardinals scored that touchdown to go ahead late in the game," Fassel said. "Our reaction encourages me to think we'll fight to the end. It may go down to the last play of the last game, but we'll try."