December 2005



New York Giants: 2005 NFC East Champions


I had been looking forward to this pilgrimage for quite some time. My father, my brother and I headed down to D.C. to take in the Giants-Skins game, the second to last game of the regular season and a potential division clincher on the day of Christmas Eve. The day got an early start; my brother’s girlfriend Suzanne’s family lives in the DC area, and because Suzanne’s father owns the RV company CruiseAmerica, we were able to procure one of those puppies for what was sure to be a professional quality tailgate. For the 1:00 game, we left the DC area at around 8:30 a.m.. My brother, my father, myself, and even Suzanne were clad in Giants gear. Suzanne’s brother, Bart, and his friend, Chris, Redskins fans both, wore Shaun Taylor and Clinton Portis jerseys, respectively. Suzanne’s mother stayed neutral.

The tailgate was legit. To go along with the RV, we had all sorts of chips with all sorts of dips, a nice mini-grill, brews and brats galore, and a semi-deflated football that we were able to catch with one-hand (beer in the other) after running three-quarter speed patterns. Despite the time of year, the sun came out and gave us gorgeous, 60 degree weather. A few of Bart’s friends rolled up at some point, clad in all sorts of ‘Skins gear, bearing the gifts of more beers and some hamburgers. We were joined by a fellow Giants fan – a friend of Suzanne’s mom – and his daughter, also a G-Men partisan, and for a solid three hours we sat around, tossed the pigskin around, grubbed, and drank beers in the sun.

I had described the tailgate before as “professional quality,� and perhaps it was, but it paled in comparison to some of the displays that surrounded us in the RV parking lot. Six feet high inflatable Redskin dolls, T.V.’s tuned in to NFL countdown, twelve-foot long grills, chairs emblazoned with the ‘Skins logo – they don’t fuck around here in FedEx Field, these guys were for real. But they were friendly too, for the most part, it seemed. We were approached by some fans of both persuasions, the Giants fans glad to have found an ally and the Redskins fans wishing us a good-natured good-luck and commending us for our die-hardness. This one guy, clad in Redskins garb, told us that the Giants sucked, but then went out of his way to complement my brother for his old-school Logo 7, LT 56 jersey. We made our way to the stadium and this big NFC East game.

***

FedEx Field is huge, the biggest stadium in the professional football, seating over 90,000 people, many of tem crammed into the towering, enormous upper deck. All football games are spectacles, but the Redskins famously ham it up: During warm-ups, the marching band blared out an extended version of “Hail to the Redskins� while their impressive cheerleading brigade kicked in rhythm.

I took it all in, and as the stadium filled out, and as people clapped their hands to the old, great, corny fight song, I felt myself taken in by the anticipatory good cheer. But then I turned to the Giants, my Giants, clad in blue and grimly going through their warm-ups, utterly alienated from the FedEx pageantry, the villains, the visiting team, the obstruction to a happy ending for all of these people. But I was with them, and as game time approached, the charm of this Redskins-fest turned, in my mind, into something hostile and ominous. And as an awesome crescendo cascaded down from the massive upper deck to ring in John Hall’s kickoff, I steeled myself to spend the next few hours in enemy territory.

But Chad Morton, who has been in a nice little groove with his returns, is able to sneak through a seam and scamper all the way to midfield before he is run out of bounds, quieting both the crowd and my nerves a bit as the Giants offense takes the field. On the first play from scrimmage, Eli Manning fakes a handoff to Tiki Barber, freeing up Plaxico Burress in single coverage. Eli unleashes a long, arcing toss towards the endzone, but Plaxico, battling the sun, fails to haul it in as the ball bounces off his hands and falls incomplete. An opportunity squandered, and after the Redskins take over for their first possession, they are able to move downfield with the help of a few Giants penalties. They convert a 3rd and 4, another 3rd and 4, and then a 3rd and 5 as Mark Brunell looks solid early on, and from 2nd and 10 from the NYG 17, Brunell hits Santana Moss on a quick wide receiver screen, who loops to the inside to evade Will Allen and then cuts upfield with lightning quickness to avoid the Giants pursuit, jetting 17 yards before diving into the endzone for the score. Small fire works go off, the stadium shrieks, and I stay in my seat.

The crowd stays amped as the kickoff teamers trot out, and the Redskins players implore the crowd, stalking the field, ominously bobbing their heads to the interlude music, and making violent, explosive, full-body movements to gird themselves for the collisions ahead. As I watch the kickoff, I am reminded once again of the gladiatory nature of this crazy sport. These guys are huge, remarkably fast, and are able to concentrate their weight to generate an ungodly amount of violent force. From my seat – squarely behind the endzone on the mezzanine level – I am able to get a very acute sense of this. Perhaps the most amazing thing is their utter disregard that they pay to their safety; concussive blows and disfigured limbs lurk in every collision, but these guys willingly fly into it all with perverse gusto, relishing every bit of pain. Perhaps my apprehension of football’s violence at this moment is made more acute by the fact that my Giants have just been utterly marched on and outphysicalled. When you’re winning, football is benignly rough, but when you’re losing, and contending with a stadium full of rabid Redskins fans, who, decent as many of them probably are at all other times, are barbarically screaming at a terrifying pitch, the game seems brutal.

But the Giants move across midfield on this series and into the outer edge of Jay Feely field goal range, and Feely, ignoring the taunts of the Redskins fans, knocks a 47-yarder down the pipe, giving the Giants some points and mercifully quieting the crowd. I find my brother, who is actually sitting in another, adjacent section, and we exchange a small but sincere fist-pump, and then I locate some other Giants fans in my section and flash similar gestures of encouragement. My dad captures our feeling of relief: “Good. We needed some traction.”

Indeed, all us Giants fans were looking for was some sort of foothold to get into this game, but a couple of plays later, we get much more. On 2nd down, Mark Brunell drops back to pass, steps up, and throws confidently, but somehow fails to see linebacker Chase Blackburn dropped into his pass coverage. Blackburn makes the too-easy pick while still in his backpedal, then gathers his momentum and thunders 31 untouched yards into the endzone for the sudden, amazing touchdown. A wonderful break, and now it is our turn to yell and hug and slap hands with strangers sitting two rows back, and to find every Giant fan in sight and point at them and triumphantly pump our fists, making sure that these Redskins fans sees and hears everything, and after Jay Feely knocks in the extra point, it’s 10-7 Giants.

But very quickly, the momentum swings back to the Redskins. On 3rd and 9, Brunell eludes pressure and dumps a pass for Clinton Portis, who cuts and darts past the first-down marker. And on the next play, from the Washington 40, Brunell fakes a handoff to Portis and bootlegs around to the left, giving him plenty of time and space to heave a bomb downfield to a wide, wide open Santana Moss. The throw is considerably underthrown, however, potentially giving the severely burnt Will Allen time to recover, but Allen’s desperate, flailing attempt to break up the pass is doomed because he is never able to locate the ball: He sprints towards Moss with his back to the quarterback, and the nifty Moss easily outmaneuvers him, corralling the pass and trotting into the endzone for the 59 yard touchdown. So much for the small comfort afforded by that small lead. It’s certainly been eventful so far, and there’s still 13 seconds to go in the game’s opening quarter.

As the teams switch sides for the second quarter, the frantic, back-and-forth pace slows down, as the crowd calms down a bit from its early-game raucousness. The Giants punt, the Redskins punt, the Giants punt, the Redskins punt, and now we’re down to 6:13 remaining in the half, the Giants with the ball.

They pick up a first down to move close to midfield, but two plays later, Jeremy Shockey’s curl route is rudely interrupted by Redskins linebacker Lemar Marshall, who bumps and grabs Shockey all the while. Indignant over Marshall’s flagrant infraction, Shockey turns to the referee to plea for a penalty flag while the play is still going on, and is in mid-complaint when Eli’s pass sails past him and into the hands of Marshall, who then whizzes past Shockey and rumbles down to the Giants 20 before going down. The crowd erupts as the Redskins take over in great field position. Shortly after this infuriating play, I get two text messages. The first is from my friend Wong, who is watching at home in New York: “Shockey was raped before the pick.” And then, seconds later, from my brother: “Benching-worthy play by Shockey.”

But alas, ‘Skins ball from the 20, and on their second play, Clinton Portis takes a toss right, hesitates a bit, and then lofts a soft-little halfback pass endzone-wards for an open Chris Cooley, who runs underneath it for the Redskins touchdown. It was Will Allen, it appears, who was responsible for covering that side of the field, and who bought the Portis fake-run hook, line, and sinker, the second time this game that he’s been victimized by Washington deception. Quite a turn of events, and with 3:21 remaining in the half, the Redskins have opened up a 21-10 lead.

Things look pretty grim when the Giants take over; to be down 11 on the road against a tough opponent is a highly undesirable predicament. The FedEx crowd has fully re-awakened, and at this point, we are looking at quite the worst-case-scenario.

But in the waning moments of the half, the G-Men put together a timely, gritty, and most importantly, lucky drive. The big plays: An Eli Manning 17-yard seam pass to Visanthe Shiancoe (in for a nicked-up Shockey), a highly questionable personal foul call on Washington’s Walt Harris, and an 11-yard first-down toss to Amani Toomer that brings the Giants down to the Washington 25, before Eli’s square-in to Plaxico Burress bounces off his hands, but then is fortuitously grabbed by a diving Amani Toomer off the deflection for the touchdown. And after Jay Feely boots in the PAT, the aisles of FedEx field empty out for the half and my dad and I reconvene with my brother and his girlfriend, who this year, has adopted the G-Men and grown to love them as immediately and unconditionally as Mr. Drummond grew to love Arnold and Willis. “Luckiest drive ever,” says my brother, and we all agree that given everything, the Giants are lucky to be down by only 4 points.

***

Most of halftime was spent waiting on line for the bathroom, an extremely unpleasant experience. Drunk assholes in Redskins jerseys, simultaneously emboldened but frustrated by their four-point lead, were getting awfully chippy, seeking out Big Blue partisans and, as my high school football coach would say, “running their mouths.” This one guy in a Joe Theisman jersey was particularly bad, cursing and spraying up a vile storm and acting every bit the thwarted, former High School jock asshole whose life hasn’t lived up to the promise of those Friday nights of lore, rather actual or embellished. As luck would have it, it was I who found himself next to him on the urinal lines, and as we both approached our respective pissers at the same time, he broke out with something that I had been expecting since four urinators ago: “Hey everyone,” said Theisman. “How ’bout we all piss on the Giants fan! Hey everyone, let’s all piss on the Giants fan!” Some laughs, and some semi-embarrassed chortle/sneers (snortles?), and from the lizzard-draining Giants fan, a dismissive eye-roll. What else can one do?

He finished before I did, then zipped up and preposterously mimed a pee-on. At this point his jig was up for most of the onlookers, except for this one asshole a couple of spots in back of me who had been egging Theisman on, and who laughed obnoxiously in approbation of Theisman’s joke before following with one of his own: “Hurry up Tiki,” said Shithead #2, noting the extended duration of my piss. “This isn’t New York… Some of us have a train to catch!” He was referencing the transit strike, and although it didn’t quite make sense, I applauded him for his topical humor, zipped up, and made my way out of the bathroom and back to my seat for the second half.

***

Redskins ball to begin the half, and the Giants D holds them three-and-out. The Giants get the ball back and start moving, converting a couple of third and shorts — including a nicely timed, 10-yard scramble by Eli — to find themselves with 1st and 10 at the Washington 19 Although they fail to pick up a first down from here, Jay Feely trots out to attempt a 29-yard chip shot, which would pull the Giants within 1, a very palatable outcome. But Feely’s kick is shockingly blocked, and the crowd erupts as the Redskins take over unscathed. This latest Giants special-teams misadventure begs the question that I pose to my friend Wong, watching from home, in a text message: “Jfs fault?”

“Mad low,” Wong replies. Apparently, Feely isn’t out of the psychological woods just yet.

When the Redskins resume possession, second-stringer Patrick Ramsey takes the helm at Quarterback; Mark Brunnel, it turns out, was injured while being sacked on the last series. But as long as the ‘Skins have the electrifying Santana Moss at their disposal against the woeful Giants secondary — which is being exposed because Washington’s outstanding offensive tackles have contained Michael Strahan and Osi Umenyiora, the Giants Pro-Bowl defensive end duo — it really doesn’t matter who is playing quarterback. After picking up a close but crucial first down, Ramsey drops back and finds Moss in single coverage against Will Allen. He guns a pass to Moss that is a little high, but Moss leaps to snare it as Allen falls by the wayside, and with the ball in his hands and an open patch of green in his vision, Moss takes it the remainder of the distance for the 72-yard touchdown. Only moments after the Giants appeared well-position to take the lead, or al least pull within a point, Moss’s third touchdown of the day — and the fourth touchdown at least partially at Allen’s expense — gives the ‘Skins an authoritative 28-17 lead. An annoying family of Redskins fans sitting right in front of us exchanges squealing screams and hugs. The lone guy in the family, a schmuck with a hickish, twangy voice, a crewneck Redskins sweatshirt, and his stringy hair overtaking the adjuster on his Redskins cap, turns to my dad and I and does a bird dance: For what reason, I do not know. “Can you do the bird?!” asks the jubilant douchebag. “Can you do the bird?!” Pissed, but humbled, my dad and I have no answer.

But just when things seem bleakest, something goes the Giants way on their next possession when Redskins cornerback Shawn Springs gets flagged for a 41-yard pass interference, a call that looked a tad ticky-tacky from my vantage. And after a clutch 11-yard first down catch by the reinserted Jeremy Shockey, and then an easy out to Plaxico Burress, the Giants find themselves with a 2nd and 3 from the Redskins 9 yard line, knocking on the door yet again. But a Redskins blitz forces Eli into an unnaceptable 11-yard sack, and the Giants must frustratingly settle for a Jay Feely field goal, which moves them within 8, at 28-20, with three minutes remaining in the third.

It must be mentioned that this is an extremely frustrating state of affairs for the Giants at this point: Since the second half began, they have outplayed the Redskins on a play-to-play basis, but their red-zone inefficiency — an enduring problem this year — the blocked kick, and Moss’s big play have conspired to keep the Redskins in the lead. But the it’s not as if the Giants haven’t had their chances.

On their next series, however, Washington sees to it that the Giants won’t have any more. Feeding Clinton Portis, their quick and sturdy running back, and playing some old-school, ball-control offense, the ‘Skins put together a series of first downs as the third quarter gives way to the fourth. On 3rd and 2 from the Giant 19, Portis surges ahead for two, barely picking up the first down, and on the next play, he bounces his run outside, eluding contain-man Will Allen (!) and darts to the corner for the backbreaking score. 35-20 Washington, as the band strikes up “Hail to the Redskins.”

***

The Giants would have a couple more chances to draw close, but their inability to convert in big situations proved to be their undoing. On their next series, they quickly move down to the Washington 29, but then just as quickly find themselves facing a 4th and 6. Needing 15 points in the remaining 11 minutes, Coughlin elects to go for it, but a horrific Manning pass thwarts the Giants and gives the ball back to the ‘Skins. The Giants resume possession in short time and again move down into Redskins territory, and with 6:25 left, complete an over-the-top touchdown pass to Amani Toomer which appears to draw them within eight. It might not be over quite yet, and we Giants fans rejoice — we’re still breathing! But a holding penalty on Chris Snee nullifies the touchdown, which gives the Redskins and their fans the last, best laugh of the day. “Bad holding call,” texts Wong from his TV vantage, but that doesn’t do the Giants any good, and a couple plays later, they again fail to convert a 4th down, giving the ‘Skins the ball and the game.

The rest was a mere formality: Portis for 6 — which puts him over 100 yards for the day — Portis for 2, and then Portis for 4 and the official, clinching first down as he trots off to a standing ovation. For our part, we’ve had enough, and we leave FedEx to a chorus of taunts, some more good natured than others. I keep my Tiki jersey on through the gauntlet, gamely responding to the abuse by saying, “See you guys in the playoffs,” evoking our still superior record to the Redskins.

We get back to the RV and re-unite with Bart, Suzanne’s brother and a Redskins fan. He is classy in victory and attempts to lift our spirits by making small-talk about some of the more exciting plays, but we are beyond consolation. And when he meets back up with his Redskin-fan friends, they exchange hearty guy-hugs and hoots and hollers. It could have been us, but it wasn’t, and the divisional champagne will have to stay on ice.

An intensely-pitched affair in the Meadowlands dusk, with a December chill and the accompanying late-season rabidity in the air. It was sure to be a tough one against the Kansas City Chiefs, a talented bunch who were faced with a must-win situation if they wanted to keep their playoff hopes alive in the deep, difficult AFC. As usual, the Chiefs boasted an explosive offense, a unit that comes into the game with a DVOA (an advanced metric created by the intelligent folks at footballoutsiders.com that breaks down each play of the season and adjusts based on situation and opponent, which you can read about further by clicking on my simplified explanation here) of 23.3%, good for fifth in the league. They are driven by the bruising but smooth running of Larry Johnson, a stallion of a running back with a huge chip on his shoulder who makes his living behind a physical and cohesive offensive line. Johnson has put up some truly eye-popping numbers going into this one: In his six starts since replacing the injured Priest Holmes, he has rushed for 852 yards and 10 touchdowns, earning himself the NFL player of the month award for November and the distinction of being the hottest player in the league.


This doesn’t bode well for the banged-up Giants, who are grappling with the loss of Antonio Pierce – out with a nasty high-ankle sprain that might keep him out for the rest of the regular season – and the more recent news of the pre-game scratch of Carlos Emmons, depletions which leave undrafted free agent rookie Chase Blackburn entrusted with the all-important middle linebacking/run-stuffing duties. And young Blackburn looks every bit the overwhelmed rookie for much of the first half, as the Chiefs big and precise offensive line blasts open sizable holes that the fine Johnson navigates. After a brisk, intense first quarter in which both teams are able to move the ball but do not score, the Chiefs find themselves on the verge of drawing first blood with a 1st and goal at the 3. But the Giants defense, spurred on by the urgings of the Meadowlands crowd, digs in for a huge goal line stand, capped off by linebacker Nick Griesen’s hard-nosed stop on 3rd down, where he successfully drives back a lead block into the onrushing Johnson, stuffing the play and keeping the Chiefs out of the endzone.

Kansas City is forced to settle for three, and the Giants answer on their ensuing series. Tiki Barber, who had struggled to find running room early against a Chiefs defense that came into the game with a top-ranked defensive run DVOA of –19.3%, finally has some success on this drive, taking a counter for nine and then a lead for seven before taking a toss, decisively cutting it up off a Jim Finn block to squirt his way through a seam, and then eluding a lunging leg-tackle attempt before emerging into the secondary. Once sprung into space, Tiki sidesteps a Chiefs safety before cutting it upfield off a persistent blocking job by Plaxico Burress, running through a feeble tackle by Cornerback Eric Warfield, who, fighting through Burress’ block, never got a good sense of where Tiki was or where he was going. Such is Tiki’s improvisational brilliance, as he then scurries for another five or so yards down the sideline before he shucks safety Sammy Knight with the help of another block by the hustling Burress, and then continues his way up the sideline. A couple of Giants fly into the picture, creating chaos for the three Chiefs defenders who can’t seem to get a grip on the slippery Tiki, whose spontaneous resourcefulness in such confined quarters resembles that of a cockroach. Sammy Knight, having flown on his ass in a previous tackle attempt, takes another shot at him, but Tiki deftly dances out of this last tackle, miraculously emerging into daylight as he scampers the remaining fifteen or so yards for an amazing 41 yard touchdown. The Meadowlands is ecstatic and their team is now in the lead.


But the resilient Chiefs come right back on their turn, and they appear to be advancing deep into Giant territory when Trent Green completes a twenty-four yard square-in to Sammie Parker in front of the struggling Curtis Deloach. But Deloach jars the ball loose from Parker as he’s making the tackle, and the Giants recover. And after a couple of Eli Manning passes push the Giants back into Chiefs territory, Jay Feely is called upon for a 41-yard field goal, another big test for the Giants unsteady kicker. At first it appears that Feely has pushed it right, but at the last instant, the ball re-directs itself and sails comfortably through. The Giants now lead 10-3, and will go into the locker room at halftime with that score.

But the angry, desperate Chiefs storm right back after the intermission, moving down the field on the strength of another Trent Green completion to Sammie Parker in front of Curtis Deloach – who, it can now be said with reasonable certainty, just doesn’t seem to have the start ‘n’ stop quickness required to cover NFL receivers – and a couple of runs by Larry Johnson get them down to the Giants 14, before Johnson gallops through a huge hole – created, it must be mentioned, by a flagrant hold on Michael Strahan — for a quick and easy Chiefs touchdown which draws the score even at 10-10.

Despite the Giants excellent defense and the Chiefs above-average unit, it is the offenses that have ruled the day, moving up and down the field with relative ease to this point. So to no one’s surprise, the Giants find themselves down in Chiefs territory on their ensuing possession, largely on the strength of a nice 18-yard counter run by Tiki Barber. But on 3rd and 7 from the Kansas City 32, Eli Manning drastically underthrows an open Plaxico Burress, and the ball is intercepted by Kansas City’s Dexter McCleon. Burress was open, and a good throw might have resulted in a Giants touchdown, but Eli’s duck – yet another bad throw from the struggling young quarterback who, after a decent enough start to today’s game, has reverted back to the inaccurate form that he’s displayed during the latter part of this season – squanders the chance for points and gives the ball back to the Chiefs.

But the Giants get the ball back soon enough, and on their first play from scrimmage, Tiki Barber follows a Chris Snee pull and a Jim Finn lead through a small, evolving seam, the type of seam that only a genius like Tiki can visualize. He then deftly cuts off a Shaun O’Hara seal and a plucky, resilient block by Amani Toomer to find himself running free down the sideline, sprinting full-out until he is finally chased down in Chiefs territory after a gain of 55 yards. Two plays later it is Tiki again for another first down on the counter – the Tiki special — and a little later, once they are established in field goal range, Jay Feely confidently bangs in the thirty-five yarder, his seventh field goal in a row after his horrible outing in Seattle and the clanging miss against Dallas, putting the Giants in the lead once again.

And as the Big Blue defense trots out to defend this slim lead, the Meadowlands crowd rises to life. Giants fans might not be the loudest in the NFL in terms of pure decibels, but they are capable of emitting that deep, intimidating roar that is unique to New York crowds, the howl of the soulful, passionate fan. And through the years, nothing brings out the passion of the Giants fans more than tough, blue-collar, disciplined defense that Big Blue brings on the Chiefs ensuing series that forces a three-and-out and a subsequent punt.

It is no surprise that these strong, evenly matched teams have given us a close game, a taut struggle that has brought a heightened intensity to each potentially pendulum-swinging play. Blocks are finished off, and receptions are celebrated with meaningful fist-pumps. On their next series, the Giants are able to move into KC territory on the strength of a (questionable) roughing the passer penalty and another beautiful Tiki counter run – the crowd has broken out into that Only in New York, four-laudatory-syllable “TI-KI BAR-BERâ€? chant — before Eli Manning his Amani Toomer over the middle on a little curl route, who, after making the catch, puts his head down to butt trough a confrontation with two Chiefs defenders, and even as his knee almost touches the ground, he somehow manages to peel out of the contact and improbably spring himself up to a running position before taking it to the house for another astounding Giants touchdown. A replay confirms this strange play: Toomer’s knee looked like it never actually touched the ground, but part of his calf probably did. What’s the call? I don’t know, but the officials say their touchdown call stands, and the Giants lead by ten.


But whatever comfort that Toomer’s touchdown might have afforded is short-lived, as the Chiefs march right back down on the strength of a Trent Green pass to the superb Tony Gonzalez and a pass interference call on Curtis Deloach, who has somehow retained the loyalty of Tom Coughlin despite play that was spotty at the beginning of the year and has only gotten worse. All of a sudden it is 1st and goal at the Giants 1, and there’s no goal line stand this time, as Larry Johnson vaults across the plane with relative ease, pulling his Chiefs back within three.

The Giants get the ball back with this slim three point lead and 8:18 left on the game clock. It is clear that this Chiefs offense isn’t going away, so it is imperative that the Giants get more points. Like most teams, the G-Men have shown a historical susceptibility to sitting on leads that aren’t big enough to warrant that degree of complacency. Too often, prudent caution morphs into unaggressive predictability, as the ball and the game’s momentum swing over to the trailing, but hungrier team. But on this day, the Giants have a special running back who is having a game for the ages. Tiki can’t miss; the game is moving slower for him than everyone else, his ability to see and react on another level than that of the other twenty-one men. On this important series, he finds a hole for eight and then, although hemmed in, somehow turns a seemingly certain loss into a first down.

The clock continues to tick – inside 4:00 — as the Giants continue to march, and after a few more plays and a critical first down completion to Plaxico Burress put them well into Chiefs territory, it is Tiki again, who takes a toss and patiently waits for his blocking to develop before cutting up through a seam and using his exquisite body control to elude a crashing tackle by Junior Siavii before emerging into the secondary, following another good, tenacious block by Plaxico Burress up the alley, and then dragging Greg Wesley for an astounding eight yards across the plane for the touchdown. The Giants go up by ten, the Meadowlands is going berserk, Gary Glitter’s “Hey Songâ€? blares throughout the stadium, Tiki jumps into Dave Diehl’s arms, and Tom Coughlin, of all people, is beaming and doing full-arm, underhanded fist-pumps like a little kid. A spectacular performance like this makes little kids out of all of us, I suppose.


The Chiefs go into hurry up mode when they resume possession, but this game is over. A nice Corey Webster interception is nullified by a highly questionable roughing the passer call on Osi Umenyiora, but a couple of plays later, Green sails a pass over Tony Gonzalez’ head and into the arms of safety James Butler, who after jitterbugging for sixteen yards in sheer excitement after his first NFL pick, prudently goes to the ground and secures both the ball and a satisfying Giants victory.

As the clock winds down, Giants players are exhorting their fans, most of whom have stayed, into keeping up the noise and intensity until the very last moment of this last Giants regular season home game. Including the “road� game against the Saints that was played in the Meadowlands, the Giants have gone 8-1 in the Jersey Meadowlands this year. The upcoming next and last two games of the regular season, both for the Giants and their fellow NFC division leaders the Panthers and Bears, will determine the playoff picture from here on in. It is highly probable that these Meadowlands fans will see their G-Men in action again (hopefully in the second round, after a bye week), but for now, these rejoicing last couple of minutes afford an opportunity for Big Blue to soak up some much deserved adulation. It’s been a good year.

But the day belonged to Tiki Barber, the man who set the Meadowlands on fire, the little big man who carried his team to a crucial victory against a good team. On his 29 carries, he ran for 220 yards, a Giants team record and the highest rushing total that the NFL has seen since 2003. Tiki is an original, an artist of a back whose improvisational style is unlike anybody I’ve ever seen. Even people like Barry Sanders and LaDainian Tomlinson, two of the most jaw-dropping runners of all time, stand apart because of their physical gifts as runners, their freakish ankles, balance, and thighs. But with Tiki it is something different: it’s the way he sees and reacts to the action before him, and not so much his sheer physical attributes. Watching Tiki on this day reminded me of interview that I saw with Franco Harris, in which he defends himself against those who criticized his infamous propensity to go out of bounds at the end of runs. Franco says, in so many words, that football is a game of subtle angles and not the macho square-off that people sometimes make it out to be. This quote can just as easily apply to Tiki; when Tiki breaks tackles, it isn’t in the head-down, man-up barrel-through that characterizes some of the more well known tackle-breakers, but rather a balletic maneuver that adroitly accounts for both his momentum and the momentum of his would-be tacklers. Improbably, Tiki emerges, still scampering.


Kudos, too, to the offensive line, a patched-together unit that did a terrific job in the absence of both starting tackles. The Giants didn’t suffer any injuries in this game either, which they could ill-afford after last Sunday’s rather Pyrrhic victory against the Eagles. Onto Our Nation’s Capital for another tough NFC-Easter against the ‘Skins, with a chance to wrap up the division and clinch another home game in East Rutherford.

Excellent breakdown on tiebreaking scenarios by my brother. It basically breaks down our tiebreaker status vis a vis (as Tavis Smiley would say) Carolina. As far as the Bears go, they’re ahead of both teams tiebreaker-wise, so we need to hope they lose to the Falcolns tonight:

Yo, here’s how the tiebreakers with the Panthers breaks down:If both Carolina and the G-Men win out, they’ll both finish 9-3 in the conference, so it’ll go to record against common opponents, which are Minnesota, New Orleans, Dallas, and Arizona. We’re 3-2 against those teams — they are 3-1 right now and this is assuming they beat Dallas next week to go 4-1, so we’ll lose the tiebreaker.

We’re in a better position for the tiebreaker if we both lose next week and then both win in week 17 — then common opponents would be tied at 3-2 and it would go to “strength of victory.” Which is retarded because clearly strength of schedule should matter more — they lost to the Fish and Aints. Right now, we’re slightly ahead in strength of victory.

If we finish tied because we lost to the Raiders and they lost one of their two games (‘Boys and Falcons), or because we lose both and they lose both, we’ll get the tiebreaker on conference record. Of course, if that happens, and the Skins beat the Eagles in Week 17, they’ll win the division.

This was supposed to be the easy part for the Giants, a breather of a game against one of the NFL’s derelicts, an opportunity to collect themselves after an intense couple of games against two of their stronger conference rivals. The Giants hoped that their game against the Eagles would amount to nothing more than a quick, efficient business-trip: Head down the turnpike, do what we have to do, and be home by midnight with wifey and the kid. After all, they were facing a Philadelphia team that was a far cry from the championship caliber team that had tormented the Giants for the past few seasons. These Eagles slumped into today’s action as losers of five of their last six games, most ignominiously this past Monday night in a 42-0 drubbing at the hands of the Seahawks, an undressing that was witnessed not only by the mortified Philly Phaithful but also a national television audience on “Monday Night Football.â€? After the game came more dissention in a Philadelphia locker room that has housed its share of bitterness this year, when linebacker Jeremiah Trotter accused his teammates of quitting on the season, surely the most damning accusation in all of sports these days. He caught a lot of flack for his bluntness, but the 42-0 score spoke louder than the his teammates’ indignant rebuttals.

It is remarkable how quickly a team can lose its elite status accompanying aura of intimidation in today’s NFL. To illustrate this, let’s look back not even a decade ago at the Dallas Cowboys in the waning years of their run of excellence, when the same guys who wore the same uniform were no longer winning the same Super Bowls. While Troy Aikman (commentating today’s telecast for Fox) might have had suffered one too many concussions, while Emmit Smith had entered that all-too-identifiable decline phase of a running back’s career, and while the defense had lost its physical edge, the Cowboys remained a feared opponent, and Texas Stadium an enduringly intimidating place. Not so with the 2005 Eagles, and their soulless neo-cookie cutter of a venue, Lincoln Financial Field. This team is a vanquished bunch, ravaged by injuries and exhausted by a season of worst-case scenarios. Today they are on their death bed; if the Giants win, they are mathematically eliminated from defending their NFC crown. The fans still fill out the stadium, but listlessly so.

***

The obligatory music, the usual implorations to the crowd by the special teamers, and a half-assed crescendo usher in David Akers’ kickoff, and we’re underway. The Giants offense, a unit that has struggled of late to match the fire-power that it displayed at the beginning of the season, trots out to take the field. During their first four games, the Giants rolled up a league high 34 points per game, and boasted a DVOA – and advanced metric that breaks down every play of the season that takes situation and opponent into account, developed by the smart folks at footballoutsiders.com, and discussed in brief in my post here – of 35.2%, good for fourth best in the league. But since then, while they’re not exactly sputtering, they have slowed down considerably, and come into this game on the heels of a grinding struggle against the Cowboys in which the offense only managed ten points; their DVOA has fallen to 7.3%, still good enough for eleventh in the league, but far from their earlier high-poweredness. No small portion of the blame for this flagging offense can be placed on the spotty play of quarterback Eli Manning, who has seen his quarterback rating fade from 97.4 after week 4 to 78.9 going into this game — certainly not bad for the second year pro, but far from the instant superstardom that he had seemingly already achieved in the season’s early going. And he is coming off his worst game of the year, a 12/31, 2 interception stinker against the Cowboys, in which he struggled with his accuracy, his touch, and perhaps most worrisome, his decisions.

The Eagles defense, while not the elite unit that consistently carried them to the top of the NFC, is still fairly decent, coming into the game with a DVOA of -7.9%, ranking a solid eleventh in the league. As ugly as the 42-0 pasting by the Seahawks might appear upon first blush, it was much more the fault of the offense than the defense, who only gave up 194 yards.

But the Giants offense comes out sharp on their opening drive, marching down the field with a precision that had been absent the week before, seemingly confirming the Eagles fans’ suspicion that their team has phoned it in. Eli Manning completes three of three 3rd down attempts on this drive, including a lofting 28 yard toss to a wide open Jeremy Shockey that takes the Giants deep into Eagles territory. A few plays later, on 2nd and Goal from the 4, Eli gets flushed from the pocket before dumping one off to safety-valve Tiki Barber, who turns and charges into a goal-line confrontation with strong safety Brian Dawkins. Dawkins rebuffs Tiki initially, but Shaun O’Hara hustles from behind and throws his 315 lbs into the equation, driving the Tiki-Dawkins stalemate across the plane and staking the Giants to an opening drive touchdown.

Already in a hole, these Eagle fans have little reason for optimism as their makeshift offense takes the field. At the beginning of this year, this offense had expectations of continuing their residence among the league’s best, but the loss of their superstar quarterback-receiver tandem, Donovan McNabb and Terrell Owens, compounded by the more recent loss of the dangerous running back Brian Westbrook, has left the Eagles offense in shambles. Last week, quarterback Mike McMahon, McNabb’s erratic replacement, threw three interceptions in the first half, two of which were returned for scores en route to a second half benching. By default McMahon gets the call again today, alongside a collection of no-names at the skilled positions.

But on the Eagles second play, McMahon completes a deep seam to tight end LJ Smith, one of the few familiar faces from the glory years of less than 365 days ago. And two plays later, rookie running back Ryan Moats – a player known only to Eagles fans and hard core fantasy football players – bounces his run to the outside, outruns the Giants pursuit to the corner, flies around the bend, and sprung by a devastating block by fullback Josh Parry, scampers all the way down the sideline for a 40 yard Eagle touchdown. A wake-up call, and the crowd springs to life.

But the Giants offense came to play today, and they come out frisky on the next series, getting all the way down into Eagle territory on the strength of a big pass interference penalty and a questionable roughing the passer call. But on 3rd and 8 from the 20, the Giants get whistled for a false start by Bob Whitfield, an old, grizzled veteran who has seen better days and has, unfortunately, replaced Luke Petitgout at the all-important left tackle position after Petitgout went out with back spasms. On the next play, a devastating thirteen yard sack backs the Giants all the way to the 38 and out of field goal range, and Jeff Feagles comes on to punt it away as the Giants squander a chance for points.

The news gets worse for the Giants on the next play: Antonio Pierce, the middle linebacker who has been, in Michael Strahan’s words, the “heart and soul� of the improved defense, suffers a nasty ankle injury when he gets awkwardly twisted undern a pile. He winces on the ground, and is later carted off the field. But even without Pierce, the Giants are able to knuckle down and stop the Eagles, and they re-assume possession close to midfield. From this point they go back to work, led by some crisp Eli Manning throws and a fabulous run by Tiki Barber, who deftly follows a Dave Diehl pull to burst into the secondary, and then makes a bounding cut to the outside to spring himself all the way down to the 1. But just as they did three weeks ago against the Eagles, the Giants fail to punch it in on their first three tries, bringing up a 4th and goal from the 1 and the Eagles fans to their feet. The suspense of the pivotal play builds as Eli calls out the cadence. He takes the snap and sneaks through a tiny crease, barely ducking under the guided missle who is the vaulting Eagle linebacker Jeremiah Trotter, and falls forward into the endzone for the touchdown. 14-7 Giants.

An Eagle three-and-out gives the ball back to the Giants, and after a 27 yard catch by Plaxico Burress – putting him over 1,000 yards on the year – and a 3rd down reception by Tiki Barber, the Giants find themselves at 1st and goal from the 7, on the doorstep of a commanding lead. But another penalty by the creaky, rusty Bob Whitfield sets them back ten yards and torpedoes their chance at a touchdown. Jay Feely is called on to knock in a 24-yard field goal, and even the shaky kicker is okay to hit the chip shot. With five minutes remaining in the half, the Giants are off to a nice 17-7 lead.

But just when it seems that the Eagles are ready to be put to bed, they answer with a few quick plays that get them inside the Giants twenty, and then Ryan Moats dashes another handoff around the outside and up the sideline, shaking off a Brett Alexander tackle as he pounces into the endzone for his second exhilarating touchdown run of the day, cutting the Giants lead to 3. The Eagle strikes have been really quick; given the amount of time that the Giants have had the ball, it seems odd that the game is as close as it is. But this patchwork squad has proven game, and the Philly crowd is beginning to smell an upset.

Clearly, this wasn’t the easy game the Giants had wished for, and things get worse when starting right tackle Kareem McKenzie goes down with what appears to be a serious hamstring injury, pushing the total to four major injuries on the day: Petitgout, Pierce, McKenzie, and also William Joseph, who injured his leg in his first game back from an elbow injury that had kept him out of the previous three games. The Giants have been blessed with good health all season, but this game has brought an avalanche of misfortune. Because they are missing both offensive tackles, the Giants have to some mixing and matching on the line, moving left guard Dave Diehl to right tackle, plucking Jason Whittle off the bench to play Diehl’s vacated left guard spot, while sticking Old Bob Whitfield at left tackle. On defense, Nick Griesen, who had excelled as the weakside linebacker, moves to the middle to replace Pierce, with Reggie Torbor coming in to replace Griesen at the weakside spot. Thankfully, the Giants relative health has left them with solid depth, but a season’s long worth of good luck has ended abruptly.

The effect of the injuries is clear on the Giants next posession, as Jason Whittle, rusty from disuse, commits two penalties on the Giants next possession that contribute to a quick Giants punt, which is darted back by Reno Mahe all the way to midfield. The Eagles offense, led by the plucky McMahon, eagerly jumps out there, and three quick plays to the scatty Mahe yield 27 yards and take the ball down to the Giants 24, decently sure field goal range for the stellar Dave Akers. On the next play, the Giants catch a potential break when LJ Smith gets called for an offensive pass interference penalty, but Coach Coughlin inexplicably declines the penalty — which would have pushed the Eagles back 10 yards and into much more uncertain Akers terrain at the 34 — instead choosing to stick the Eagles with 4th down, but an extremely makeable 42 yard field goal for the excellent Akers. Akers drills the kick with ease, and going into the half, the Eagles have battled all the way back to a 17-17 tie.


***

Perhaps just as surprising as the fact that the Eagles are still in this game is that it’s their offense, at the expense of a suddenly vulnerable Giants defense, that is responsible. The Eagles have put up 212 yards, including 122 rushing yards against a Giants defense that came into the game averaging an excellent 3.6 yards allowed per carry. The Giants offense looks excellent too in accumulating 247 yards, their skilled players running free in the secondary and for big chunks of yardage. But every time that they appear on the verge of taking control of the game, the Eagles are able to answer with points of their own.

As Jay Feely’s kick ushers in the second half, it is clear that the Giants are in for a much tougher fight than they anticipated. The Eagles pick up where they left off and drive down to the Giants 23, but a penalty and a sack push them back and force a 50 yard David Akers field goal attempt. Akers has been the consensus best kicker in the league for the past few years, and he thumps this one pretty good and pretty straight, but it doinks off the crossbar, no good, and the Giants resume possession.

As they have been able to do all day long, the Giants move the ball effectively on this drive, converting two 3rd and longs – Eli Manning has gone 8 for 9 on 3rd down thus far, Troy Aikman informs us — that give them a 1st and goal at the 2 yard line. But the Giants recent read zone ineptitude rears its ugly head once again, as they manage to lose a yard over the next three plays. Jay Feely comes on and knocks in a 21 yarder, giving the Giants a three point lead that should have been more. Their next drive brings them back into the red zone, but they squander yet another opportunity, forcing them to settle for yet another field goal, which pushes the lead to a very unsatisfying six points.

But as often happens when teams fail to maximize opportunities, the Eagles make them pay on the next drive, as rookie Corey Webster’s struggles continue when he passively allows a possible interception to be snared from his gut by receiver Reggie Brown for a big gain – yet another missed opportunity – and a few plays later, David Akers hammers home a 36 yarder, halving the lead just like that. With 10:32 remaining in the game, the Eagles just keep nipping at the Giants’ heels.

As the game approaches the home stretch, the Iggles fans have found their customary rowdiness, as Lincoln Financial Field comes alive with nothing-to-lose abandon as their defense takes the field. They erupt a few plays later when Eli Manning — who has played pretty well up to this point — makes a crucial mistake, overthrowing Jeremy Shockey for an interception by Eagles cornerback Sheldon Brown. The Eagles take possession around midfield, and a quick burst by Ryan Moats and then a McMahon toss to Bobby McMullen give them a 1st and ten at the Giants 34. The Giants defense is able to stiffen at this point, though, forcing David Akers to attempt a difficult 50 yard field goal, a yard longer than where he had missed in the third quarter. But this time, Akers’ kick has plenty of leg; he could have hit it from 60 yards out. Tie game, and Lincoln Financial is feeling it, with 1:56 remaining.

***

Despite Eli Manning’s inconsistency, he has displayed a champion’s poise in critical, late game situations that has endeared him to Giants fans, and perhaps more importantly, his teammates. It started in a week 6 loss to the Cowboys, when Eli, after struggling through his worst game of the year to that point, shook off the day’s malaise and led the Giants to a game tying touchdown. The very next week at the Meadowlands, Eli rung in his status as a clutch, New York athlete by beating the powerful Broncos on a dramatic, heart-stopping touchdown drive, sending the Meadowlands into a frenzy in what has been, but hopefully won’t ultiately be, the highlight of the 2005 season. Against the Vikings and Seahawks, Eli led his team to desperate last-gasp touchdowns and subsequent two-point conversions to keep his team’s chances alive, even though they wound up losing both games. For whatever rookie problems he’s having, or “growing pains,� as the current, ex-athlete talking head-lexicon would have it, whether it is mental fatigue or imperfect mechanics, a certain lucidity comes over him in these pivotal moments, a lucidity that lets New York fans all they need to know about their bonus baby: He’s a winner.

Everything seems to be going according to plan when Eli completes successive twelve yard and fourteen yard passes to Jeremy Shockey and Tim Carter, which bring the Giants across midfield to the Philadelphia 46. Two plays later, it is Shockey again who finds himself wide open in the secondary, roaming free, perfectly positioned in a soft spot of the zone for Eli to loft him a nice, easy ball for a big gain that will get the Giants into field goal range. But Eli, perhaps overanxious at the prospect of seeing a potentially game-winning play so thrillingly develop before him, puts way too much on his throw, sailing it way over Shockey’s head and into the chest of Eagles safety Michael Lewis for another untimely interception. A good throw would have given the Giants a chance to win the game, but Eli’s second interception in three minutes has given the Eagles a reprieve, and we’re going to overtime in the cold Philadelphia night.

The third overtime of 2005; the Giants are 0-2 in their previous two attempts in the extra session, having lost both coin tosses, and their luck doesn’t look to be improving when Tiki Barber’s Tails call – last time he called Heads – proves wrong, giving the Eagles the first crack at a sudden-death win. Another bad break befalls the Giants when, after Mike McMahon finds Greg Lewis on 3rd and 8, the umpire’s generous spot gives the Eagles a questionable first down by half the length of a football. But the drive is snuffed out shortly after that, as the indominable Michael Strahan makes two big plays – including a sack on 3rd and 12, his eleventh and a half of the year – which force an Eagle punt.

On come Eli and the Giants for their turn. Again they are able to move the ball, and when Tiki Barber slithers for ten yards, crossing midfield and for a 1st down at the Philly 42, the Giants are once again a first down or so from victory. But two plays later on 3rd and 3, Eli throws one low to an open Jim Finn, who himself doesn’t make the most dexterous effort at catching the ball. This brings up 4th down from the 35 yard line, and Coach Coughlin a critical decision. Two weeks ago, confronted with almost exactly the same decision, Coughlin showed faith in Jay Feely, electing to send out his kicker, who, aside from an uncharacteristic miss a few minutes earlier at the end of regulation, had displayed a strong leg and good consistency all season long. Two weeks later, it is a much easier decision, but for all the wrong reasons; Coughlin doesn’t even entertain the thought of inserting the shaky Feely, deciding instead to go for it. But a ferocious Eagles blitz, a pre-2005 Eagles blitz, collapses the pocket on Eli Manning, forcing him to flail a half-deflected prayer that doesn’t even make the line of scrimmage before it is intercepted by Brian Dawkins, which turns out to be inconsequential because Dawkins is unable to generate any return. Another opportunity squandered, and Eagles ball again.

But the Eagles offense is beginning to show signs of fatigue, as the Giants have been able to apply some pretty consistent pressure, finally finding their groove at just the right time. Eagles tackle Artis Hicks’ holding penalty backs his offense into a 1st and 20, and after 1st and 2nd down yield zero yards, the Eagles are faced with a daunting 3rd and long. The Giants pass rush comes, and an improvising Mike McMahon uses his considerable athleticism to break the containment of the pocket, scrambling to the wing to buy himself and his receivers some time. But the Giants’ Carlos Emmons steps up to greet him from his linebacker position, forcing McMahon to halt his roll-out. He cocks his arm to wing one downfield, but before he can whip it forward, Osi Umenyiora comes crashing in from his blindside, stripping him of the ball and sending it skidding on the grass. Kenderick Allen of the Giants happens to be the closest man; he charges, pounces, and cradles, and the Giants take possession at the Philadelphia 27. After a rough first half, the defense has finished strong, and they trot off the field having positioned their team for a chance to win the game.

The Giants cannot get a first down on their ensuing set, but they do manage nine yards, setting Jay Feely up for what is, under normal circumstances, a relatively easy 36 yard field goal attempt. Nothing more about Feely needs to be said; it’s a pretty typical sports head-case situation, but it’s worth mentioning that the Lincoln Financial Field Jumbotron played a montage of Feely’s misses of the previous two weeks, backgrounded by music that Feely would later describe as “eerie.� After Andy Reid calls time to ice him, Feely lines up his kick. The snap is good, the spot is good, and Feely’s kick looks plenty good at first, but then it takes a drastic turn for the left upright. God only knows whether the ball will intersect the plane of the upright in front of the upright – another, possibly career crippling choke – or behind it – redemption. The ball sneaks itself in behind the upright, Feely points to the sky, and sixty large men in dirty white uniforms gratefully bound toward the smallest one of them. The Giants have escaped with a victory.

Any lingering hard feelings from the previous Sunday’s painful loss to the Seahawks were obliterated by the blanket of snow that covered the Tri-State area late Saturday night and early Sunday morning. This first snowfall of 2005 couldn’t have come at a better time for the Giants, who needed to clear their minds of last week for this all-important divisional showdown against the Dallas Cowboys. By game time, the snow has been plowed from the field, which because of the miracle draining technology of FieldTurf, was now surprisingly dry and playable. The solid layer of white had been pushed outward – to the embankments of snow at the field’s perimeter, which along with the now visible breath of the players, signaled the arrival of December football – and upward, to the stands, where 78,645 screaming Giants fans – minus the usual substantial contingent of Cowboys fans – rabidly waved white towels that were given them at the gate. It was cold, it was gray, it was raw, it was raucous, and to top it off, the Giants came out of the locker room in their alternate red jerseys, making it unmistakably clear that this was the most important game of the season. To the winner would go a one-game lead for first-place in the NFC East, and with four games remaining, the inside track to the division title. To the loser, a 7-5 record and the wilderness of the wildcard battle loomed, the nerve-wracking chaos of tie-breakers and scoreboard-watching.

The Giants win the toss and choose to receive, and when Billy Cundiff puts the foot to it, this classic NFC East showdown is underway. As you would expect from December NFC East games, this one promises to be a pitched defensive battle. The last time these two teams played, the Cowboys’ fast, aggressive defense brought the previously high-flying Giants offense down to earth, making Eli Manning look every bit the unfinished product that he is. The Dallas defense is solid all around, with speed rushing defensive end DeMarcus Ware anchoring the pass rush, a prototypically Parcellsian collection of physical linebackers, and best of all, an outstanding secondary led by perhaps the NFL’s most lethal tackler, strong safety Roy Williams. The ‘Boys came into the game with a DVOA – an advanced metric that calibrates standard stats according to situation and opponent, developed by the smart people at footballoutsiders.com — of -12.3%, good for 7th in the league. (For a layman’s explanation of DVOA, check out my “Some Thoughts on the Giants” post here) The Giants, for their part, boast an outstanding defense as well, a unit that has hit a plateau of excellence in the past few weeks with a string of excellent performances. Their outstanding defensive ends, future Hall-of-Famer Michael Strahan and emerging pass-rushing extraordinaire Osi Umenyiora, have led the defensive resurgence of Big Blue, which has also included a vastly improved pass defense and stellar linebacking. The Giants actually rank slightly ahead of the Cowboys with a defensive DVOA of -12.8%, 5th in the league, and as the starting units take the field, all of the elements are in place.

To no one’s surprise, much of the first quarter follows its expected course, as both sides exchange punts in their first couple of possessions. But as the first quarter gives way to the second, the Giants are able to move the ball, and a couple of Cowboy penalties help keep their drive afloat as they advance deep into Dallas territory. From the 10 yard-line, Eli Manning dumps a short pass to Tiki Barber, who darts his way down to the 1, and on the next play, Brandon Jacobs follows a Chris Snee pull, busting across the plane for the touchdown. 7-0 Giants.

With the home team off to the early lead, the Meadowlands is charged up, instilled with a maniacal energy by the cold, raw air, and they rise to their feet as the Cowboys are quickly faced with a 3rd and 8 on their ensuing series. And when promising rookie pass-rush specialist Justin Tuck makes an outside-in move to blindside the ever-stationary Drew Bledsoe, and the ball drops loose on the ground, and the Giants recover, the Meadowlands erupts, sensing an early opportunity to take an authoritative lead. But a few plays later, Eli Manning vastly underthrows an endzone fade to Plaxico Burress, and this opportunity is squandered.

Still, the Giants defense remains utterly impenetrable, holding Dallas to a three-and-out and setting the offense up in good field position at their own 38. On first down, Eli Manning’s deep crossing toss to the talented but underutilized Tim Carter goes for 27 yards, taking the Giants across midfield and close to field goal range. They manage another first down before stalling, and on 4th and 2 from the Dallas 9, the Meadowlands holds its collective breath as Jay Feely – last week’s goat and the kicker who’s fragile psyche might yet determine the fate of the Giants season — trots out to attempt a 27-yard chip shot. Feely connects, and the Meadowlands exhales; perhaps Feely’s collapse last week was a one-game aberration. With two minutes remaining in the half, the Giants lead 10-0.

The teams go into the half with that score, which, while passing the comfort threshold of comprising of more than one score, still seems somewhat insufficient given how much the Giants have dominated the action so far. They have 157 total yards to the Cowboys 37, their stifling defense limiting Drew Bledsoe to a putrid 4/13, for a mere 17 yards.

Despite their superior play, the Giants need some sort of break so that the scoreboard can reflect their dominance, and they get one on the first play from scrimmage in the second half. Defensive tackle Kendrick Clancy explodes off the ball and busts into the Dallas backfield, discombobulating Drew Bledsoe’s handoff to Julius Jones. The ball bounces off Jones side and falls weakly on the ground, where Antonio Pierce, who has increasingly found himself at the right place at the right time as he’s grown more comfortable in the Giants defense, effortlessly picks it up and trots in for the score, giving the Giants a surreally easy touchdown that puts them firmly in command at 17-0.

The quickness and ease of the touchdown so contrasted the incremental NFC-Eastness of the game so far that the Meadowlands has taken on a mood of giddy celebration, overcome by the good fortune of Pierce’s touchdown. Of course we’re the best team in the division, the crowd self-satisfied murmur suggests, and this 17-0 lead now proves it.

Unfortunately, the defense, who has spearheaded this dominantion, joins the crowd in loosening its tie and kicking up its heels, and the desperate Cowboys seize on the letup. Drew Bledsoe hooks up with the heretofore catchless Terry Glenn for a couple of passes that go for a combined thirty yards, and some slashing carries by Julius Jones take Dallas to a 1st and 10 at the NYG 20, before the Giants defense stiffens in the nick of time to hold the Cowboys to a field goal. But while it’s not a rebuttal commensurate to the blow that was the Pierce touchdown, it is an answer nonetheless, and dead teams don’t answer. Dallas has a pulse, and the better part of a half to make up 14 points.

And when the Giants take possession, their prolonged inactivity – they haven’t had the ball since before the half – compounded with the day’s mid-thirties temperature, has left them cold and out of synch. They go three-and-out on their first possession, and follow that by immediately digging themselves into a 3rd and 5 from their own 15. Eli Manning, desperate to generate offense, tries to squeeze a pass in to the well-covered Plaxico Burress, but Aaron Glenn makes a diving interception, his second of the day, and then scampers down to the 7. And on the very next play, Drew Bledsoe lofts a beautiful timing fade to Terry Glenn in the endzone, and just like that, we have a game again.

The cavalier mood in the Meadowlands has quickly given way to a palpable sense of anxiety; as dusk descends on East Rutherford, one can feel the creeping presence of the ghosts of Giants collapses past. A chance to build more of a cushion is squandered when Tim Carter drops Eli Manning’s 50+ yard bomb on the Giants next series, wasting one of Eli’s only good passes of the day. Alas, the Giants’ offense goes three-and-out again; their last three possessions have resulted in a three-and-out, an interception, and another three-and-out.

Things do not appear to be improving on the Giants next possession when Eli Manning’s deep square-in to Plaxico Burress is horribly off target, and is intercepted by Keith Davis at the Giant 43. At an earlier point in the quarter, Fox commentator Troy Aikman described Eli Manning’s performance as “barely passable.� That’s putting it kindly; Eli’s been awful, and is on his way to a 12/31 day. A portion of the blame for his three interceptions today also must fall on the shoulders of Plaxico Burress, to whom all three of Eli’s interceptions have been thrown. Plaxico is very talented and has been terrific in this his first year with the Giants, but his reputation as a space cadet wasn’t totally unfounded. Today, it seems that a slightly more hard-nosed effort by Plaxico might have one or more of these picks.

But either way, the dominoes are falling, as they have so many times in recent Giants history – the 1997 Viking playoff game, the Titans regular season game in 2002, and, of course, the 49er playoff game – and the mood in the Meadowlands is decidedly grim. But then, a beautiful yellow flag comes flying in, perhaps from the heavens, a late flag, a controversial flag, and quite possibly, and errant flag. Nevertheless, Young Eli and his Giants are granted a reprieve as the defensive pass interference call keeps the Giants drive going. They manage to advance all the way into Dallas territory before stalling, and on 4th and 6 from the 29, Coach Coughlin faces a dilemma: Jay Feely is set up for a 47-yard field goal, but Colonel Tom is reluctant to thrust his kicker into such a pressure situation, so he elects to go for it instead. The Giants fail to convert, and with 12:18 remaining in the game, Dallas resumes possession.

Fortunately for the Giants, the defense has evolved into a dominating unit, thanks in no small part to their emerging young superstar at defensive end, Osi Umenyiora, who makes a spectacularly athletic play on the Cowboys next possession: A misdirection play has the Giants defense completely fooled, as the whole unit floods right while Drew Bledsoe pitches the ball left to Julius Jones. The only defender who has stayed home is Umenyiora, who now represents the only obstacle between the quick, elusive Jones and a large expanse of green. The race to the corner is on; both players accelerate, predator chasing prey in the purest moment that football can give us, and Osi chases Jones down, the defensive end dragging the running back down from behind. An incredible play that prevents a potentially game-changing play for Dallas, and the Meadowlands fans, those connoisseurs of defense, rise to their feet in appreciation of their young star. In addition to his incredible effort on this play, Umenyiora also notched another quarterback sack today, upping his NFL leading total to 11.

An incomplete pass on the next play completes the defensive stand, and when the Giants get the ball back with 10:39 remaining in the game, they are able to move the ball, driving all the way down to the Dallas 15 and setting up Jay Feely for a 33 yard field goal attempt. It is a perfect situation to re-establish Feely’s confidence, an easy opportunity to provide the feel-good, go-home moment of the day, the clinching kick. But Feely doesn’t cooperate, as he doinks his kick off the left upright, leaving the Giants and their fans with an uneasy feeling, and not just about this game. Going into the stretch run, there is something wrong with the kicker’s head.

But today, the defense is up to the task of bailing him out. They shut the Cowboys down in the last, tense five minutes of the game, and when Julius Jones gets brought to the ground on a last-ditch screen pass attempt, the clock ticks down to triple zeroes and the Giants stand alone in first place. It certainly wasn’t the prettiest game: Eli Manning’s poor performance and Feely’s continued mental block certainly raise red flags about a team with Super Bowl aspirations, but a December win is a December win. The credit for this one, obviously, goes to the defense, who were nothing short of dominant. Going into the year, the defense was perceived as a potential area of vulnerability, something that certainly seemed to be the case after the Giants first few games. But Defensive Coordinator Tim Lewis has done a remarkable job, and now his defense can be counted among the NFL’s elite. Kudos, also to Tiki Barber, who carried the ball 30 times for 115 yards, a gritty performance by the greatest running back in the history of the franchise. Next for the Giants is a trip down the Turnpike to face the collapsed Philadelphia Eagles; it’ll be sweet to show them how much things have changed, and to ring in our status as the new kings of the NFC East.

In my posting about our Week 7 loss against Dallas – a game that Big Blue came into on the heels of a 44-point, 456 yard explosion against the Rams the previous game – I referred to the G-Men as “The offensive juggernaut masquerading as the New York Football Giants,� a reference to our surprising offensive prowess at that point in the season. Up until the Dallas game, all of our games had featured excellent offensive performances, with the Rams game being the high-water mark. According to FootballOutsiders’s DVOA ratings, which rank all teams according to situation and opponent, taking account of the league averages, the Giants ranked 4th in the NFL at that point in total offense with a DVOA of 32.1%.

(Important Digression [Read Carefully]: I strongly recommend that all thinking football fans take the time to read FootballOutsiders’ fleshed-out explanation of DVOA. But in this space, to make a long story short, the basic principle of DVOA – which stands for Defensive-Adjusted Value Over Average — holds that all football stats should take into account situation and opponent, and therefore, looking at such primitive measures such as Yards is insufficient. For instance, a 2-yard run that yields a first down against a tough defense like the Bears is a more successful play than a 2-yard run on 3rd and 4 against a bad defense like the Texans. Without going into all the crazy math, DVOA breaks down each play of the NFL season in terms of “success points,â€? so that the 1-yard first down against the Bears is worth more than the 2-yard run against the Texans. DVOA, while imperfect and still the subject of constant tinkering, is the best statistical measurement there is right now. The number itself [in the above case, that 32.1% percent], stands for the percentage of success above league average. This doesn’t correspond to yards or points; it is on its own scale. But to give you a sense of what the numbers mean, 30 means excellent, 0 means league average, and -30 means terrible. For defense, on the other hand, the more negative the number, the better [for intuitive reasons], so -30 is excellent, 0 is league average, and 30 is terrible. But do check out the full explanation. It also should be noted that that DVOA has a stronger correlation to a team’s record than yards, which is not surprising because it is designed to account for situation. And as a predictor, it has a higher correlative value than games won when it comes to predicting future wins. In other words, a 10-6 team with a DVOA of 30% is more likely to be better the next year than a 12-4 team with a DVOA of 20%.)

Anyway, going into that Dallas game, our offense was flying high with its 31.2% DVOA. If there was an area of concern about this team, it was our defense, which came into that game with a below-average DVOA of 5.3 (remember, for defense, the more negative the better). The Dallas game was a humbling one for our offense: Matched against the first above average defense that we had seen, we were only able to put up 13 points. Since then, our offense has been pretty good, but certainly not as high-powered as it looked during the first four games, and our offensive DVOA stands at a more down-to-earth 9.6%, good for 9th in the league, still not too shabby.

Our defense, however, has improved by leaps and bounds since the early going. Where the first four games made you think that the Giants were on the verge of relinquishing their Big Blue tradition of strong defense, they have turned it around since then, especially on the strength of three dominant defensive performances against the Redskins, 49ers, and Vikings, and then a couple more strong performances against the Eagles and this past week against the Seahawks. At this point, it is the defense that has emerged as our stronger side, boasting a 5th ranked DVOA of -12.8.

So what has changed? First, on offense, Eli Manning has fallen off from the blazing pace that he set for himself those first few games. After the Rams game, his Quarterback rating stood at 97.8, but since then, it has slipped to 81.1. To make sense of these numbers, consider that if his rating were still 97.8 right now, he would be the 3rd ranked QB in the league; his 81.1 rating places him at 18th. Again, this is not bad, but perhaps Giants fans were getting a little ahead of themselves when they were placing him in Peyton’s category two months ago. His season still has been extremely encouraging, especially considering his 2004 rating of 55.4, but perhaps we should be giving it another year or so before getting ourselves on the waiting lists for hotels in Canton.

Another thing that has slowed our offense has been penalties, a season-long problem that became painfully apparent last week against Seattle. On the year, the Giants have set themselves back a total of 796 yards, good (or, actually, bad) for fourth most in the league. It should be noted that this has also been a huge problem on defense, where we have given opponents 823 yards, second most in the league.

Still, our offense is very good, a legitimate top third offense, and among NFC playoff contenders, only the Seahawks and (surprisingly) the Falcons have higher offensive DVOAs. With Tiki Barber maintaining his excellence – he is second in the NFL in yards from scrimmage – and Amani Toomer re-incorporated into an offense that already boasts two good receivers in Jeremy Shockey and Plaxico Burress, the Giants are a dangerous bunch.

But it is the defense that has been nothing short of spectacular of late. At the beginning of the year, it seemed that we would be extremely vulnerable against the pass, but our pass defense has improved dramatically, and now has a very respectable DVOA of -6.8%, 14th in the league. Although the nearly season-long loss of Will Peterson has left us without our only good cover-corner, we have been able to offset our secondary problems with an outstanding pass-rush. A particular asset has been Osi Umenyiora, who in his third year in the league, has blossomed into a star opposite the still-stellar Michael Strahan, ranking 3rd in the NFL with 10 sacks. As far as the defensive backs are concerned, Will Allen has notably stepped up his game, and while Curtis Deloach and Corey Webster have struggled, the pass-defense hasn’t hurt us as much as we originally feared.


But the strength of our defense has been our ability to stop the run, where we rank 3rd in the league with a DVOA of -21.5%. Besides for week 3 against the superlative LaDainian Tomlinson, and week 7 against Denver’s potent ground attack, we have been consistently successful at bottling up the opposition’s running games. This bodes well for us looking forward at the NFC playoff picture, where only Carolina — and to a lesser degree Seattle — have significantly above average passing games, making the ability to stop the run critically important.

The defensive front seven has been outstanding all around. Our defensive tackle rotation of William Joseph (Out for this week’s game), Kendrick Clancy, Fred Robbins, and Kenderick Allen has been a pleasant surprise. At linebacker, free-agent acquisition Antonio Pierce has improved as the year has gone on, and is now playing the best middle linebacker that Giants fans have seen in quite some time. Nick Greisen (Questionable for Sunday’s game), long buried on the bench, has made the most of his opportunity and has proven himself to be an asset as a starter. Our defense has also done an outstanding job generating turnovers, ranking 3rs in the NFL with 27 takeaways so far. This, too, can be largely attributed to our excellent pass rush.

Unfortunately, because we have lost three games by a total of nine points in heartbreaking, last-second field goal fashion, our record stands at 7-4, good but not great. According to FootballOutsiders, our “expected record� at this point is 8-3, based on our DVOA and schedule. Our schedule is tough these last few weeks – Dallas, @Philadelphia, Kansas City, @Washington, @Oakland – but according to DVOA, we are better than all of those teams; if we are serious about being a Super Bowl contender, we should be able to win four of these games. The big one, of course, is tomorrow against Dallas, a game that will place the winner in the driver’s seat for the division crown. It should be cold and overcast, real “Giant weather,� in the words of Bill Parcells. These are the games that you look forward all year to, and the Meadowlands should be a rockin’.


When you think of difficult places to play in the NFL, Seattle isn’t exactly the first place that comes to mind. It is portrayed as a city of grungy, laid-back, perhaps slightly depressed white dudes in flannel shirts, who smoke their cigarettes and drink their coffee, dudes for whom screaming and chest-painting do not come as naturally as they do to the men of many other NFL cities. Like the weather in their city, Seattleites have a reputation for being moderate, and their football team reflects this ethos of moderation: For the past twelve years, their Seahawks have won somewhere between 6 and 10 games, neither too good nor too terrible, certainly nothing to get too excited about in either direction. But coming into Week 12 of this 2005 football season, the Seahawks boast an NFC best record of 8-2, and a rabid bandwagon of fan support to go with it, and if the Giants have any illusions of a benign road game in the peaceful Pacific Northwest, a raucous Qwest Field makes it unmistakably clear that this Seattle team and its fans are not here to play nice. As game time approaches, you can sense a certain charge to the normally mild Seattle air, something the commentators call a playoff atmosphere.

Jay Feely sails the opening kickoff into the afternoon sky, and the Battle in Seattle is underway. Matt Hasselbeck and the Seahawk offense trots onto the field, a unit that has surpassed expectations by leading the NFL in total yards, though not points scored. This potent offense is fueled by the running of Shaun Alexander, a patient and intelligent runner whose knack for making the most out of holes reminds you of the Giants’ own Tiki Barber. Both runners have an outstanding feel for the spatial and timing aspects of running, and while Tiki is perhaps a little more crafty, Alexander is more physical. Going into the game, Alexander leads the league with 1229 yards and 19 touchdowns, gaudy numbers that are finally earning him the recognition he has always deserved.

He makes his living behind a rock-solid left side of the offensive line, led by Guard Steve Hutchinson and future Hall-of-Fame Tackle Walter Jones. The 31 year-old Jones is an absolute physical specimen of a football player, a 6-5, 308 pound man who can be described as lean, a man who despite his size has absolutely no trace of awkwardness. In his ninth year of professional football, Jones is at the top of his game; coming into today’s action, he has the staggering distinction of not having surrendered a sack in two years.

This protection has allowed Quarterback Matt Hasselbeck to enjoy a bounceback season from his sub-par 2004. Although the Seahawks number one receiver Darrel Jackson is out with an injury, Hasselbeck has two dependable targets in veterans Bobby Engram and Joe Jurevicius, the erstwhile Giant who seems to have finally harnessed his considerable physical skills.

But despite the excellent offenses on the field today, it is the the defenses that rule the first quarter, as the first few possessions become a field position struggle. You can sense that these teams are very evenly matched, and the mostly scoreless first quarter has the taut intensity of a good pitcher’s duel.

It is the Seahawks who break through first. From their own 25, Matt Hasselbeck fires a bomb downfield for Bobby Engram, who gets tangled up with Giants safety Brent Alexander, yielding a 29-yard defensive pass interference penalty. Two plays later, Hasselbeck heaves a pass towards the end zone for the 6-5 Joe Jurevicius. Corey Webster, the Giants rookie cornerback who is making his first career start, is step-for-step with Jurevicius, but he overanxiously mistimes his leap for the ball, and Jurevicius plucks it over the top for the Seattle touchdown. Qwest Field erupts in a deep roar as the home team draws first blood.

As the teams switch sides for the second quarter, the defensive struggle resumes, with both sides biting and scratching for field position and exchanging punts. The game is intense and briskly paced, and the Qwest Field crowd grows more into it with the passing of each play. A modern, elegant stadium, Qwest Field has two canopies that cover the stands to shield fans from Seattle downpours, but also have the effect of trapping sound inside the stadium. As the intensity of this game continues to build, the Seattle crowd discovers that it can be an effective “12th Man,� ratcheting up the noise and flustering the visiting Giants. On one set of downs in the second quarter, the Giants commit a staggering five false start penalties. Five false start penalties in one set of downs! It has to be a record.

The Seahawks appear poised to take a significant edge when they move into Giant territory on the next series. When Matt Hasselbeck completes a crossing pattern to Bobby Engram on 3rd and 6 for a first down near field goal range, the Giants appear on the brink of going down by two scores in this tight contest. But Will Allen, trailing Engram all the while, rips the ball loose on the tackle, and then recovers the fumble himself, giving the Giants the ball and staving off a potentially perilous situation. Finally, the Giants are able to put some successful plays together — some Eli Manning throws and a pass interference call were key — moving down to the Seattle 21 before Jay Feely bangs in a 39 yard field goal, getting the Giants on the board with four and a half minutes to go in the half. Allen’s forced fumble was big; it could have very easily turned into a 10-0 game, but now the Giants are right there at 7-3.

And when the Giants stuff the Seahawks again on the next series — thanks in large part to a forced fumble on 2nd down by Osi Umenyiora on which the Seahawks retained possession – the Giants offense gets right at it again. Eli Manning completes four passes on this drive for a total of sixty-two yards, bringing the Giants all the way down to the Seattle 7 with 1:23 remaining in the half. After two incomplete passes, Eli hits Jeremy Shockey in the end zone, who catches the ball and then gets rocked by Seahawks safety Jordan Babineaux, a blow that sends Shockey thudding to the ground and jars the ball out of his arms. However the officials rule the play a touchdown, based on the logic that because there was a point during which Shockey had both possession of the ball and two feet down — if only for the briefest instant – it is a touchdown at that moment, play over. Because the play took place during the last two minutes of the half, however, it must first go up to the booth for review. The evidence is still inconclusive: Shockey’s second foot may have grazed the ground, but it may not have. But since the burden of proof is on the side of overturning the call, the lack of indisputable evidence means that the touchdown stands. After much ado, it is now 10-7 Giants; Qwest Field falls silent, and the Giants celebrate, and a minute later, they trot into the locker room with a halftime lead.

At this point, it appears that the Giants have absorbed the Seahawks’ best shots, and having weathered the storm, should be poised to come out strong in the second half. Aside from the somewhat flukish Jurevicius touchdown, the defense has really put the clamps down, having not allowed so much as a first down since. At the half, the numbers significantly favor the Giants: they have outgained their hosts 212 to 126, and hold a lopsided edge in time of possession, 18:40 to 11:20.

Indeed, it is a confident Giants team that emerges from halftime, and their confidence rises further when an errant Matt Hasselbeck pass on the Seahawks’ opening series is intercepted by Brent Alexander, giving the Giants the ball at the Seattle 26, and setting up the reliable Jay Feely’s 43-yard field goal, which extends the Giants lead to 13-7.

The Seahawks ensuing possession is yet another three and out, and with the Seahawks on the ropes, the Giants offense immediately goes back to work. Runs of twenty and seven yards by Tiki Barber, and eleven yard Eli completion to Shockey give the Giants a 1st and 10 at the Seattle 36. Points are a near-certainty: a field goal would put the Giants up by two scores, while a touchdown would give them a commanding 20-7 lead. The Giants go for the jugular, calling a deep corner pass to the resurgent Amani Toomer. But pressure from the Seahawks flushes Eli out of the pocket, and in a youthful panic, he blindly flails a high, arcing duck in the direction of no one in particular. Seattle safety Michael Boulware gratefully camps under it and makes the interception, bringing it all the way back to midfield, and in the blink of an eye, the momentum has just shifted as the Qwest Field crowd snaps out of its dormancy.

So, too, does Shaun Alexander, who the Giants have admirably held in check so far by playing hard, disciplined defense. But on this drive, Alexander carries four times for forty yards, and then, quicker than you can figure out how to spell J-U-R-E-V-I-C-I-U-S, Hasselbeck hits the former Giant for their second touchdown of the day, this time in front of the struggling Curtis Deloach. The drive took all of six plays and two minutes; the lead, and the momentum, belong again to the Seahawks.

And when the Giants take possession again, the Qwest Field crowd dials up the intensity on the stunned visitors, which effectively causes the Giants to torpedo themselves with three penalties on the next series. For as great a season as this has been for the Giants, penalties have been a persistent source of vexation. In this game, they will have committed 16 penalties for 114 yards, gifts that the best of teams would struggle to overcome, especially against a good opponent like Seattle. Colonel Tom deserves a lot of credit for the Giants’ re-emergence as a contender, but for a coach with a reputation as such a disciplinarian, his team’s penchant for stupid penalties is puzzling.

After the Seahawks get the ball back, the Giants defense regroups, holding Seattle to another three and out; the Giants regain possession as the fourth quarter dawns. After driving to midfield, they fail to convert a key 3rd and 2, and are forced to punt the ball back to Seattle with 11:14 remaining.

It is at this point that the Giants defense has an untimely collapse, as the Seahawks mount a methodical, emphatic drive on them. Matt Hasselbeck completes five of six passes for 69 yards: three of these passes are caught by Joe Jurevicius, who is torturing his former team and their inexperienced cornerbacks, and the last of them goes to Bobby Engram, who jukes and muscles his way for a tough 10 yard gain on 3rd and 11, setting up a 4th and 1 from the Seattle 4. Up by 1 point, Mike Holmgren makes the gutsy call and goes for it; Shaun Alexander squeezes his way through an opening for the first down before grinding across the plane for… no signal… for the touchdown. The PAT makes it 21-13 Seahawks, and with 4:33 remaining, time is running out on the Giants.

Fortunately for the Giants, they have a talented, unflappable young quarterback who has a knack for rising to the occasion. Although it is only his second year in the league, Giants fans have become well-acquainted with Eli Manning’s 2-minute face. It is almost a sleepy face, with his eyes two-thirds open and his lower jaw slightly protruding, betraying only the slightest trace of tension. Like a kid locked into his video games, the face manages to be languid but serious, showing nothing but complete immersion in the task at hand. The face exudes a kind of eerie calm, an expression that would fit perfectly on the face of a serial killer who seems almost normal, but who gives himself away by being a little too calm: It’s the quiet ones you’ve gotta watch. And after a good Chad Morton return brings the Giants to their 39, Eli, his face, and his offense trot onto the field, attempting to replicate the grace under pressure that has been displayed this year against Dallas, Denver, and Minnesota.

Young Eli does not disappoint, leading his team downfield with surgical precision, and even showing his mettle by running for a key nine yards. From the Seattle 25, the Giants face a 3rd and 10, and Eli finds Jeremy Shockey – who, for his part, has played a gritty, brilliant game — for a clutch 13-yard first down, taking the Giants down to the 12. On the next play, Eli lofts one over the top for Amani Toomer, who manages to secure the ball and keep two feet in bounds as he’s falling out of the back of the endzone. Touchdown, Giants, says the back judge official. Another replay of a Giants touchdown call yields a similar conclusion to the earlier Shockey touchdown: A tiny part of Toomer’s heel might have touched the white line at the back of the end zone, but it might not have. Either way, there is certainly no conclusive evidence in any of the available replays, and the touchdown stands.


Still down by two, the Giants must now convert a two-point conversion to tie the game, the second time they’ve been faced with this nerve-wracking predicament in the past three weeks. They line up in a stacked trips formation, and Jeremy Shockey runs a quick stop pattern, finding a small bubble in the Seahawks coverage in which Eli is able to squeeze a pass. Shockey makes the grab for the successful conversion; Eli has done it again.

But there are still two minutes left, and the Giants know from their experience of two weeks ago that they’re not out of the woods yet. This time, the Giants defense steps up — aided by a penalty on the formerly invincible Walter Jones, who has met his match in the Giants rising star of a defensive end, Osi Umenyiora — producing another Seahawks three and out, and when Chad Morton niftily darts Tom Rouen’s punt back to midfield on a key eleven yard return, it is the Giants who are poised to position themselves for a game-winning field goal.

The offense doesn’t miss a beat, as Eli hits Shockey for eight and then Burress on a key third-down slant for eleven, bringing the ball down to the Seahawks 31, which is the outer edge of reasonably sure Feely Field Goal range. Tiki Barber grinds out some tough nine yards on the next two plays, bringing the ball to the 22 and setting up Feely for a 48 yard, game winning field goal attempt with four seconds remaining. He has drilled a 39 yarder and a 43 yarder today, and has been extremely reliable in this his first year with the Giants, going 23 for 25 up to this point. A free-agent acquisition, he has been just what the doctor ordered, stabilizing our field-goal kicking and providing excellent kickoffs that have consistently denied our opponents good field position. A forty-yarder is no chip-shot, but it is also no challenge for a good kicker like Feely. He lines up his kick from the left hashmark as the 67,102 onlookers at Qwest Field hold their breath and pray for a reprieve. The snap is good, the spot is good, and Feely’s kick pretty much stays on a direct line from the left hashmark to the left upright. As it sails through the air, it can either veer left, stay straight and hit the upright, or, less likely, move right a fraction of a degree and sail through. It veers left. The Seattle crowd goes bananas, and we’re going to overtime.

Onto the overtime coin toss, one of the more interesting things in sports to see on T.V. Jeff Feagles, representing the Giants as a Captain and playing in his NFL record 283rd consecutive game, calls Heads, which seems to make sense in the same way that if you playing the Giants in Rock-Paper-Scissors, you would expect them to throw Rock. But it turns up tails, and the Seahawks elect to receive. The Giants defense, however, summons its will power and holds the Seahawks three and out, punctuated by a successful third-down blitz by middle linebacker Antonio Pierce. After the Seattle punt, the Giants take over at midfield, once again in good position to end this classic game.

The drive appears to be going nowhere fast as they lose three yards on the first two plays, but then Eli drills a huge 23-yard square-in to Plaxico Burress which brings the Giants to the Seattle 31, and a gives them a fresh set of downs to work their way into more advantageous field goal position. On the next play, Eli hits Jeremy Shockey on a little out, who brings the ball in and turns upfield. But Seattle’s LeRoy Hill wraps up Shockey and jars the ball loose, where, for a moment, all bets are off as twenty-two grown men descend on the synthetic inflatable spheroid known as The Pigskin. Tim Carter, the Giants underutilized speedster, bails the Giants out by recovering the ball at the 20-yard line, and the Giants exhale. But the savvy Mike Holmgren challenges the play call, perhaps informed of the strong possibility that Shockey never actually had possession before Hill’s hit caused the “fumble,� which would render the play an incomplete pass and nullify the sixteen yard gain. Upon further review, the Seahawks finally get the best of a challenge; the play goes as an incompletion, sending the Giants back to the thirty-six.

And when the Giants next two plays yield zero yards, Coughlin faces a difficult decision. Does he send out Jay Feely for a 54-yarder, after he has just missed one from 40? Coughlin says yes, and Feely trots out. The snap is good, the spot is good, and the kick appears to be good before dying in the endzone, woefully short. Once again, the Seahawks have new life, and the Giants defense again has to strap up their helmets and dig in their heels as Seattle takes over close to midfield.

But just when it appears that the Giants have finally given the Seahawks one chance too many, the defense valiantly keeps the Seahawks out of field goal range, bottling up Shaun Alexander on a first down run and a second down pass. Aside from the three touchdown drives, the Big Blue defense has turned in a dominant performance. They trot off the field triumphantly, having given their offense another shot as Eli and the boys take over at the 20.

As clutch as the Giants defense has been, the Seahawks defense has been the exact opposite. Needing to prevent a touchdown in the late fourth quarter, they failed; needing to prevent the subsequent two-point conversion, they failed; needing to prevent the Giants from getting into field goal range at the end of regulation, they failed; and then, in overtime, charged with the same task, they have already failed once. And when Tiki Barber follows a beautifully blocked counter through a gaping hole and explodes untouched into the secondary, implausibly splitting two Seahawk defensive backs on the way to a 49 yard run that takes the Giants down to the Seattle 31, it appears that Seattle’s defense has failed them yet again.

The Giants can muster only four yards in the next three plays, moving them to the Seattle 27, and setting up Jay Feely’s third attempt to win the game in the past thirty minutes, this time from 45 yards. It’s a little longer than they might have liked, but still eminently makeable, and Feely lines up to attempt a kick that would allow him to laugh off the previous two attempts in an “Aw, you know, it’s a crazy game, but I’m just glad we came out on topâ€? way. But it surprises no one when he misses; in fact, the only surprising thing is the manner in which does – it’s short! – showing just how much his mechanics have been compromised by whatever is going through his head. Qwest Field is giddy as the Seahawks once again get away with something; despite their poor play over the last several series’, they are today’s Cat with Nine Lives, or Teflon Don.

With 6 minutes left, the Seattle offense takes the field again, and when Hasselbeck gets flagged for an eleven yard intentional grounding penalty of first down, they seem to be well on their way to continuing their futility. But on the next play, a blown coverage by rookie Corey Webster allows D.J. Hacket to get wide open, and Hasselbeck hits him for a 38 yard gain. A big break for the Seahawks, and they are in business at the Giant 38 as Qwest Field quakes. The Giants defense, dazed by this sudden reversal of fortune, cannot recover in time to prevent Shaun Alexander from ripping off two consecutive runs of 8 and 13 yards, moving the Seahawks into chip-shot range at the Giant 17. A couple of runs and a “Centering� of the ball bring 4th down and Seattle kicker Josh Brown onto the field. His 36-yard field goal is not pretty, but it sneaks through the uprights. The Seahawks have somehow won this game, and the Giants now must take the red-eye back to the East Coast, left to contemplate their second bitter defeat in the past three weeks.

The Seahawks are now sitting pretty atop the NFC at 9-2, while the Giants have moved back into a tie with Dallas at 7-4. Now two games behind Seattle in the conference, they have squandered a terrific opportunity to stake a strong claim to home-field advantage in the playoffs, a claim that was eminently within reach about three times this afternoon. But as painful as this loss was, it wasn’t discouraging. Although they are two games behind them in the standings, it would be hard to argue that the Giants are not a better team than the Seahawks, who they outgained 490-355, with 25 first-downs to the Seahawks 17. More importantly, the Giants offense was repeatedly able to move the ball in the game’s critical drives, while the defense was able to stop the Seahawks. Save for Jay Feely’s monumental choke for the Giants ages – there is really no other way to put it – they would have won this game. And although the road to the Super Bowl will probably go through Seattle now, you can be sure that the Giants would relish another crack at these guys.