In End, Giants are In-Vincible

For so long, Win & In was looking grim. Impossible. Hopeless. But these are the Giants, and it is not over until they say it's over.

It is not over. Perhaps it's only beginning.

Rising from the cold grip of defeat in a tension-filled game they had seemingly lost so many times with self-destructive mishaps, the Giants yesterday paused and inhaled as Matt Bryant, the pawnbroker-turned-kicker who looked immensely fallible on this day, lined up for a 39-yard field goal. This would either catapult the Giants into the playoffs or else prolong an agonizing afternoon.

"I'm just saying to myself, 'Please, God, let him make this field goal,' " safety Shaun Williams recalled.

There was so much failure poured onto the field by the Giants, heroics and blunders intertwined in a jumble, blurring the lines between hero and goat as Chris Bober sent the snap back to holder Matt Allen and Bryant approached the ball.

This was 9:50 into overtime and when Bryant's kick hooked right but slipped through the goal post, Giants Stadium exhaled and a battle-weary team erupted after a 10-7 victory over the Eagles that indeed clinched a playoff spot for the still-surging, incredibly resilient Giants.

"It takes a lot to make me cry," Tiki Barber exclaimed afterward, "but when that thing went through I couldn't help myself."

Barber was one of many sterling symbols of what this game was all about. He lugged the ball 32 times and ran for a career-high 203 yards, yet he fumbled four times and lost three of them, giving and taking, soaring and stumbling, just like the team he plays for.

It was that way for Bryant, who earlier had missed a 36-yard field goal, very nearly missed an extra point and sent kickoffs slamming into the soft grass. Yet Bryant persevered.

It was that way for Kerry Collins, who threw a first-quarter interception with the Giants perched on the Eagles' 6-yard line, and it was that way for offensive linemen Mike Rosenthal and Rich Seubert, both were called for holding penalties that nullified touchdowns and took precious points off the board.

It was that way for the entire Giants defense, which was jolted by a sudden-strike scoring drive for a 7-0 deficit after James Thrash's 20-yard reverse less than three minutes into the game, but then pitched a shutout.

It was that way for Jim Fassel, who coached his way onto the hot seat and then masterfully assembled a four-game winning streak to close out the regular season.

"We said it a while ago, it's over when we say it's over," Fassel beamed. "I told them it was going to take all 60 minutes. I didn't realize it would take more."

It took everything the Giants (10-6) could muster, but they've gained admission to the postseason and will play next weekend either at Tampa Bay, Green Bay or San Francisco.

To get there, the Giants had to end the Eagles' six-game winning streak and often overcome their own foibles.

The first points for the Giants did not come until only 8:08 remained in the fourth quarter, when Collins lobbed a pass into the end zone and the irrepressible Jeremy Shockey out-leaped Brian Dawkins for the ball. Shockey then fired the ball into the stands.

This was a lost cause when Barber, with 4:34 left in the fourth quarter, was stripped of the ball by Dawkins, and Michael Lewis recovered on the Giants' 26. The Birds advanced to the 17 and out trotted David Akers, the league's best kicker who had made 30 of 33 field goals. He missed a 35-yarder with 72 seconds left.

"I've got one word to say to you . . . I missed," Akers said.

After a half-hearted attempt to move the ball, the Giants settled into overtime. The Eagles (12-4) won the coin toss but on third down A.J. Feeley, on a deflected pass off tight end Chad Lewis, was intercepted by Williams at the Giants 37.

It might have been safe to keep the ball out of Barber's hands, but instead, Fassel called his number on every play, five straight runs that gained 28 yards (plus a 15-yard Philly penalty) that put the Giants at the Eagles' 21 and set the stage for Bryant. "There are a lot of parallel stories here," said Bryant, who punched the air in triumph after his kick. "No one expected me to be here and no one expected us to be in the playoffs. And here we are."