Led by Collins, team keeps cool

He is the picture of calm, his blue eyes focused, his head held high.

Anyone looking for quarterback Kerry Collins to panic in the wake of the Giants' hideous loss to the Falcons will be sorely disappointed. Collins' chief priority this week?

"To stay positive," he said yesterday.

Collins is the leader of the offense, a leader of the team, and he has been determined to set a businesslike tone.

"We have young guys and they're all looking at me," he said. "They're looking to see how I act."

Collins has been able to crack the occasional joke, specifically when asked if he has spoken with running back Tiki Barber about his fumbles.

"No," Collins said. "Hell, I've got to worry about interceptions."

In watching the Giants practices the past two days, as well as the players' demeanor in the locker room, it appears Collins' calm has been contagious.

"I think it took us all a while to get rid of it," coach Jim Fassel said, referring to Sunday's 27-7 home loss to Atlanta. "But I think it's over and we've got to move forward."

Said cornerback Will Allen: "Nobody's depressed. 'Cause it's not over."

Preparation for Sunday's game in Philadelphia began with what Fassel called an "excellent" practice on Wednesday. By that time, Fassel already had spoken to Collins and defensive end Michael Strahan in hopes of taking the pulse of his team.

"There are always guys who get a little weak-kneed, a little sweaty-palmed and a little out of whack," Fassel said. "That's where you need the voice of an experienced guy in the locker room."

In his 11 seasons, Strahan has seen more devastating losses than last Sunday's. The January playoff defeat in San Francisco comes to mind. So does a 1998 loss to the Redskins who, like the Falcons, were on a seven-game losing skid.

"I think everybody realizes what's at stake (Sunday)," Strahan said. "Nobody wants to relive what happened last week. Hopefully the adage 'a desperate team is the worst team to play' is true because right now we are a desperate team."

They are also, apparently, one with a short memory. Strahan said the comments by Fassel after Sunday's loss -- where he asked his players if they were trying to get him fired -- have been dismissed.

"They don't mean anything right now," Strahan said. "The thought of losing a game is what bothers you and the way you lose is what bothers you."

Said Collins: "Obviously it was very emotional; everybody heard what was being said in the stands. I don't think anybody's thought twice about it, really."

That may be because there is too much riding on the upcoming game. At 4-5, the Giants simply cannot afford to lose, maybe not for the next month, especially to an NFC East rival.

"It's still out in front of us if we start playing ball and stop making mistakes," Fassel said.

These Giants are wildly unpredictable and have been all season. They are exactly the kind of team that can lose to perhaps the NFL's worst team one week then upend one of the hottest teams in the league the next.

"We've been like that all year, unfortunately," wide receiver Ike Hilliard said. "Which team is going to show up? I don't know; I don't have a gauge on it. I don't know what's going to happen."

Hilliard has not practiced this week because of an injury to his left ankle and knee but vows to play in Philadelphia -- the site of his season-ending shoulder injury last season. It is his brand of toughness that the Giants may try to embrace as a team.

"I'm just hoping and feeling pretty good about our situation," Hilliard said. "I think we're going to play well Sunday."

Why? Hilliard couldn't say. He just has that sense.

"If we lose this game, we'll be in a situation we may not be able to recover from," he said, his voice falling to almost a whisper. "We need this game really bad. If that's not motivation, then I don't know what is."
Nov. 14,03