Big Blue now tickled pink

Romp, upsets thrill Giants

Two weeks ago, Jim Fassel looked like he was on his way to unemployment. Now there's a chance he's on the way to the playoffs instead.

The Giants' postseason chances, which once looked impossible, were upgraded to improbable after nearly everything went their way yesterday. First, they got two huge breaks when both Atlanta and New Orleans lost games in dramatic fashion. And then they took advantage of their good fortune with their most lopsided regular-season victory in nine years.

The Giants didn't even know what happened to the Falcons and Saints when they began their 37-7 pounding of the Dallas Cowboys at Giants Stadium. But Fassel got an update on the sidelines from trainer Ronnie Barnes and quickly gathered the offense to tell it the good news. Minnesota had beaten New Orleans on a dramatic, game-ending two-point conversion. And Seattle topped Atlanta after the Falcons missed an easy field goal in overtime.

"I called the offense together and I told them, this isn't over until we say it's over," Fasselsaid. "Obviously with both of those teams losing today and us winning, I think that puts us back in the race, doesn't it?"

Yes it does, although because both the Saints and Falcons have remarkably easy games left and the Giants (8-6) must play at Indianapolis and against the Eagles, the Giants are still the longshot in the NFC wild-card race. But they'll get in if they finish 2-0 and either the Falcons or Saints lose just once. And they can get in by finishing 1-1, as long as the Falcons or Saints go 0-2.

All that hope was made possible because of the Giants' biggest first quarter since Dec. 20, 1986. They jumped all over the Cowboys, scoring 21 points in the first 13-1/2 minutes, including touchdowns on their first two drives and a 50-yard fumble returned for a touchdown by defensive end Kenny Holmes.

"I didn't see this coming," said embattled Cowboys coach Dave Campo. "I really felt that we would come in here and play a little bit better football. But we didn't. There's no excuses. They whooped us."

The whooping began with a game-opening, 63-yard drive that ended with a one-yard touchdown run by Tiki Barber (11 carries, 81 yards). Then on the ensuing drive, the Cowboys got all the way to the Giants' 36 when Campo ordered his team to go for it on fourth-and-3.

That turned out to be a huge mistake as Giants linebacker Mike Barrow came untouched up the middle and jarred the ball loose from Cowboys quarterback Chad Hutchinson (16 for 40, 161yards). Holmes picked it up and raced 50 yards for a touchdown and a 14-0 Giants lead.

"That got us momentum," said Giants quarterback Kerry Collins. "And we kept right on rolling."

On the Giants' next drive, they got a 60-yard run from Barber - his fifth of 40 yards or more this season - that put them in position for a 4-yard touchdown run by Ron Dayne. Dayne actually had two touchdown gallops - adding another late in the fourth quarter - and rushed 19 times for 80 yards.

That's how big a laugher this was. Fassel even took out Collins (13 for 27, 190 yards) for the first time in two years, putting in backup Jesse Palmer for the final 13:02. When Palmer threw a 10-yard pass to fullback CharlesStackhouse with 10:45 to go, it snapped Collins' streak of 1,852 consecutive passes for his team. Only a 9-yard touchdown pass from Hutchinson to Antonio Bryant kept the Giants from their first regular-season shutout since 1998.

Still, it was their biggest regular-season blowout since a 41-7 win at Washington on Oct.10,1993 and their biggest regular-season rout at Giants Stadium since they beat the Phoenix Cardinals, 44-7, on Dec. 4, 1988. But the more important part was what Fassel told his team when he heard about New Orleans and Atlanta.

Amazingly, the Giants' hope for a miracle is still alive.

"This team has fought through a lot of adversity, fought through a lot of things," Fassel said. "People say we can't do this, we can't do that, but the carrot is sitting right there. At some point in time when you set your goals you better be able to grab the carrot. And I wanted them to know that."
Dec. 16,02