Giants, Ravens turned things around quickly

As the New York Giants' plane started its descent into Tampa last Sunday, Jessie Armstead kicked the back of Michael Strahan's seat and asked: ``Can you believe this?''

"No," Strahan replied.

Neither could anyone else.

When the NFL season began, the Baltimore Ravens and the Giants were longshots to make the Super Bowl, a combined 15-17 last season. Midway through the season, after two ugly losses for the Giants and a five-game scoreless streak by the Ravens, the odds were even longer.

``If you'd told me eight weeks ago we'd be here, I'd have laughed in your face,'' says Strahan, one of New York's defensive leaders and its highest paid player at $7.6 million a year.

The same is true for Baltimore, which went the entire month of October without scoring a touchdown.

Trent Dilfer replaced Tony Banks at quarterback in the second half of game No. 4. Dilfer lost his first start, again without a TD. Then came 10 straight wins, including playoff upsets at Tennessee and Oakland, that got them here to play the Giants in Sunday's Super Bowl.

Quick fixes and good luck can take NFL teams a long way these days, when the salary cap makes every team relatively equal in talent.

Conventional wisdom is that the Giants turned around with coach Jim Fassel's guarantee that his team would make the playoffs. Fassel, who almost surely would have been fired had the team failed to make the postseason, decided to take the New York media criticism off his players and put it on himself.

The Giants, 7-4 at the time, have won seven straight games.

But the real turnaround began after a 7-9 1999 season in which the team was badly divided.

``We had to change the chemistry of this team and the starting point was the offensive line,'' Fassel said. ``The guys we brought in hit the mark - in personality, leadership and professionalism as well as in ability.''

The two most important guys were veteran offensive linemen Lomas Brown, 37 and Glenn Parker, 34. Both brought maturity and leadership to the locker room.

Brown, for example, went to defensive tackle Keith Hamilton and told him he needed to get into better shape. They worked out every day together and Hamilton had the best season of his nine-year career.

``The whole thing was fun, too,'' Brown said. ``We'd sit around afterward playing dominoes and just shooting the breeze. It made us closer and it made the team closer.''

The Giants started with three straight wins, lost to Washington and Tennessee and then won four more to reach 7-2. The running game worked well with rookie Ron Dayne and Tiki Barber, recovered from two seasons of nagging injuries.

Then came the losses to St. Louis and Detroit. As the media jumped on the team, Fassel jumped in to protect his players. ``This team is going to the playoffs,'' he announced following the Detroit loss - the word ``guarantee'' was never actually used.

Now they're here.

The Ravens started well this year, but then hit the scoring drought. On Oct. 22, the Ravens were in the fourth game of a five-game stretch without a touchdown and Tony Banks had thrown three interceptions and lost a fumble.

After a second straight interception, coach Brian Billick finally replaced Banks with Trent Dilfer. They lost that game to Tennessee, lost 9-6 to Pittsburgh, but have won 10 straight since.

``We had to do something,'' Billick said. ``It wasn't just Tony. We weren't getting anything done on offense. Sometimes you just stand there and do nothing. In our case, we're on a 10-0 run so our offense did what it had to do.''

In truth, it was more what the offense didn't do - turn over the ball. Dilfer, who had been run out of Tampa after six erratic seasons, was instructed to hand off to Jamal Lewis, throw it away when he had no open receivers and let the NFL's best defense get field position for him.

But Dilfer has had his special moments, particularly in the playoffs. In each of Baltimore's three wins, he combined with tight end Shannon Sharpe on one big play, including a 56-yard pass that set up the only offensive touchdown in the win over Tennessee and a 96-yard, third-and-18 play for the only score in the AFC title game in Oakland.

``With our defense, that's often all it takes,'' Dilfer said.
AP-NY-01-26-01 0244EST