All we need is a field goal, Kerry Collins kept saying in the Giants' huddle in the fourth quarter, and his intent was to calm his teammates. But no words could have been more frightening to the Giants on this day.
The Giants had squandered perhaps 8 points because of kicking adventures, missing two extra points and two field goals. Snapper Bob Jones wobbled the ball back to the holders, the holders struggled to catch and place the ball, and Matt Bryant pulled his kicks when he actually had a chance to boot the ball.
The whole kicking operation was a mess, and the Giants were trailing by a point to the Minnesota Vikings, a team that entered the game with two victories in eight games.
"All we need is a field goal," Collins said. Yes, and all the Democrats need is about 10 million more votes.
But Collins continued to press after reaching field goal range, throwing a 5-yard pass to Jeremy Shockey for the only third-down conversion of the game for either team and hitting Tiki Barber with a 9-yard pass before Barber ran 8 yards for a touchdown with 2 minutes 47 seconds remaining. The Giants added a 2-point conversion and edged Minnesota, 27-20, their record creeping over .500, at 5-4. They are one game behind Philadelphia (6-3) in the National Football Conference East, and will play at home next week against Washington.
"There was a point where I was thinking, `If we stinking lose this game, I'm going to come in and break every one of these lockers,' " tight end Dan Campbell said. "That wasn't an option. We had done too much."
The parts of the Giants' kicking unit have rotated, as in a game of musical chairs, since the end of training camp, in a search for consistency, and Coach Jim Fassel promised there would be more changes. Jones was claimed on waivers to be the snapper on the eve of the season, punter Matt Allen was given the job of holder, and Bryant was re-signed five days after the Giants released him and had made all of his kicks in their first six games.
To upgrade their punting, the Giants signed the veteran Tom Rouen, who also replaced Allen as the holder nine days ago. After Bryant missed two relatively easy field goal attempts last week against Jacksonville, he mentioned how every holder was different and how there was always a period of adjustment.
But Jones descended into a snapping slump today, delivering the ball to Rouen in a wide, fluttering wobble.
The Giants scored a first-quarter touchdown and took a 7-0 lead, and after Ron Dayne ran 30 yards and high-stepped into the end zone, Rouen corralled one of Jones's snaps but could not plant it correctly; Bryant never had a chance to kick the ball.
Still, the Giants led by 13-3, playing a bad team with a porous defense. The Vikings changed quarterbacks during the game, switching from Daunte Culpepper to Todd Bouman, were flagged for 10 penalties and were 0 for 9 on third-down conversions. All the Vikings needed was a nudge, it seemed, and they would topple.
Then Bryant pulled a 31-yard field goal attempt to the left late in the second quarter, and midway through the third quarter, Rouen mishandled another poor snap on a 36-yard field goal attempt and was flattened, the hit knocking him woozy. Fassel turned and told Jason Garrett, the third-string quarterback, that he would hold in the fourth quarter.
By rule, however, Garrett was not available before then, and after Collins (25 of 35 for 300 yards) threw an 11-yard touchdown pass to Amani Toomer with 22 seconds left in the third quarter, the backup quarterback Jesse Palmer went onto the field as the holder — and Bryant shanked the ball to the left. Fassel walked the sideline, his face taut. The Giants should have had a lead of more than 20 points.
Jones, perhaps in his last game with the Giants, sounded mournful afterward, saying all the blame belonged to him.
"They were all wobbly," he said. "I could tell coming out of my hands they were wobbly. I don't know why — mentally just breaking down, I guess. They should have all been on the money, and I totally blame myself for the drops. If they were all perfect spirals, laces out every time, they would have caught those and they would have went through.
"Snapping is like an instinctive thing and it should happen just naturally. You shouldn't have to think about it or force it. It should just happen. When it breaks down like that, I was forcing it or thinking about it too much."Vikings receiver Randy Moss had been invisible for three quarters, although the Giants had often covered him man to man and sometimes gave him enormous room; Culpepper did not seem to look his way often. But Bouman did in his second series, hitting Moss on consecutive passes of 48 and 32 yards. Moe Williams ran the last yard for a touchdown, cutting the Giants' lead to 19-13 with 12:06 remaining.
Minnesota got the ball back three minutes later, and Michael Bennett, who finished with 167 yards rushing, burst through the middle of the Giants' defense and ran 78 yards for a touchdown.
The extra point — an elusive concept for the Giants in this game, automatic for the Vikings — gave Minnesota a 20-19 lead. Barber turned to Dayne on the sideline and talked incredulously about what was happening.
When the Giants' offense returned to the field with 8:36 remaining, the Vikings' defenders chided their opponents loudly. Defensive tackle Chris Hovan taunted the Giants' offensive line as a bunch of no-names, a bunch of free agents.
Collins had thrown erratically, and Fassel called some short passes, giving him a chance to regain a sense of rhythm. On third down, Minnesota cornerback Corey Chavous was called for interfering with Toomer.
But a penalty slowed the drive, giving the Giants a first-and-25 at their 43. Ron Dixon ran a route along the seam of the defense and dived for the throw Collins aimed low — and caught it, sliding along the ground. First down at the Minnesota 28.
The Giants were in field goal range, theoretically, but Barber, who had 127 yards in 24 carries, joked afterward that he had been ready to run plays on fourth down, if necessary. The Giants' players spoke supportively of the kicking unit afterward, but with the game nearing its end, they were all aware of the risk.
Collins hit Shockey on third down and Barber for 9 yards; the Vikings' defense was collapsing. Then Barber ran through the middle of a huge hole and neared the end zone, where wide receiver Daryl Jones made the last block, and Barber dived forward for the touchdown.
"Our guys really gutted it out," Fassel said, "and made plays."
Fassel congratulated them for the shaky victory, and when he announced that the Eagles had lost to Indianapolis, the players cheered. They are in a race for the playoffs.