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 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.