Giants sneak past Saints in home opener

EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. – To say the Giants sweated this one out would be an understatement. Big Blue held on tight as the Saints mounted a furious rally, and beat New Orleans, 21-13 in front of 78,451 at Giants Stadium.

It took two Saints offensive penalties on the game's final play before New York could chalk this one up in the win column.

"I'm extremely proud of this team," Head Coach Jim Fassel said. "They showed a lot of character; they showed a lot of fight. "We wanted to show some toughness to the home fans." And they did, both mentally and physically. New York looked to have the game well in hand late in the fourth quarter, but as Fassel said, "We never expected them to stop coming."

Trailing by eight, New Orleans had a first-and-goal at the Giants nine-yard line with 15 seconds to play. On first down, New Orleans QB Aaron Brooks' spiked the ball to stop the clock. Brooks had foolishly stayed in bounds on a six-yard run on the previous play, with New Orleans out of time-outs.

On second down, Brooks had WR Joe Horn open in the back of the end zone. SS Sam Garnes came flying out of nowhere and batted the ball away. But New York would need more than one game-saving play on this afternoon. On third down, New Orleans ran the exact same play, looking to get Horn open on a crossing pattern, running right to left. This time, it was rookie CB Will Peterson's turn to step up. He came close to picking the ball off, but prevented Horn from coming up with it, nonetheless.

"That hit his fingertips," FS Shaun Williams said. "We're going to have to get him for that." Added Peterson's father, William, Sr.: "That was a great play, but I always expect the best from him. I really figured he'd pick it off." So, with four seconds left, the game came down to one play. The Giants defense looked around the huddle. No one said a word.

"We all knew what we had to do," Peterson said. Brooks dropped back and started scrambling as DT Keith Hamilton applied pressure. By that point, reserve CB Emmanuel McDaniel had successfully pushed WR Willie Jackson, who already had 105 receiving yards, out of the back of the end zone. Since Brooks was out of the pocket, that was a legal play by McDaniel. Once Jackson came back in bounds, McDaniel saw back judge Billy Smith drop his hat, indicating a penalty.

"Once I saw that, I went to cover someone else," McDaniel said. Brooks didn't realize that Jackson had committed a foul and tried to get the ball to him. McDaniel stepped in front of the receiver, but Jackson came up with the pass in the end zone. Touchdown? Hardly. Jackson pushed McDaniel in the back, drawing his second penalty on the play. New York declined the penalties, the clock was at zero and the celebration began.

"I saw the flag and was worried for a moment that it might be on us," LB Brandon Short said. "Then I realized it was on them. What a relief." Fassel, however, wasn't as worried. "They had to score twice," said the coach, referring to the ensuing two-point conversion attempt that would have followed. "That ending took a lot of guts."

No one may have been happier that Big Blue held on at the end than Offensive Coordinator Sean Payton. After RB Ron Dayne, who had a career-high 111 rushing yards on 19 carries, busted a 16-yard gain in the final four minutes, Payton called for a pass. QB Kerry Collins' toss to TE Howard Cross fell incomplete, stopping the clock with 3:30 to play.

 "That was a big mistake on my part," Payton said. "We should have run the ball at that point; that could have knocked another minute off the clock. "At the end of the game, that's all I was thinking about. I just kept my fingers crossed that we'd be okay." And they were. New York hung on against one of the better teams they expect to face all season. "That was a great win against a great team," Payton said.

"We knew they weren't going to go down," Garnes said. "New Orleans is a great team. There's a good chance we're going to see them again [in the playoffs]." For now, then Giants were just concerned with improving to 2-1, and winning another game for their hometown, which is still reeling from the terrorist attacks nearly three weeks ago. "This is our home,"

LDE Michael Strahan said. "It's like [the attacks] happened to us. This is one of the most satisfying victories I've had as a Giant." "That was important for us to win,"

RT Luke Petitgout said. "We met all those people Saturday (the families of the victims visited Giants Stadium), and we knew we'd win – even if they did score. We would have won. We had our minds set that we would win." A big reason they won was the all-around play of Dayne. He played his best game as a Giant, and impressed many in the process. "He did a nice job," Payton said. "We wanted to run the ball against this defense and we did."

Dayne showed the speed and instincts that Fassel fell in love with while the big back was rushing to a Heisman Trophy at Wisconsin. And he did most of it without his partner in crime, Tiki Barber. New York's offensive MVP was clearly bothered by his left hamstring, but still chipped in 50 total yards and New York's second touchdown. Barber tweaked the hammy on that score and at halftime, the Giants decided not to take any chances with their offensive investment, and held Barber out the rest of the game.

"I think he's OK," Fassel said. "I think he should play next week." The offense was also bolstered by the return of WR Ike Hilliard. While Hilliard didn't start, he did chip in with two catches for 32 yards. He also had two catches negated by penalties. "I think Ike did a good job," Fassel said. "We'll have to see how sore he is [Monday]."

As for Collins, the coach wasn't nearly as pleased. "I don't think we threw the ball well today," he said. Collins, coming off a three-INT game in Kansas City, only threw 18 times, completing nine, for 135 yards and one score. New York's defense, which surrendered 330 total yards, did a pretty good job of containing Brooks and Co. until late in the game. Strahan, who was quiet during New York's first two contests, hung a hat trick on Brooks, sacking the elusive QB three times. He also added two forced fumbles.

"Michael was excited," Fassel said. "I could tell he was going to go out and do something and he did. He played outstanding today." "I just needed to get one [sack]," Strahan said. "After that, I was ready to go."

The Giants recently suspect run defense also did a good job containing Saints RB Ricky Williams. Like the rest of the Saints, Williams came alive late in the game, but Big Blue was able to hold him to 53 rushing yards. He also added a 41-yard catch-and-run late in the game. The Giants survived a 68-yard return by the Saints' Michael Lewis on the game's opening kickoff. The Saints second possession was much ado about nothing. They moved 30 yards, and it only took about a half-hour.

There were two 15-yard personal fouls on the Giants – Garnes for pushing after the play, and MLB Micheal Barrow, who again paced the Giants with 10 tackles, for a late hit. In between, Strahan posted his first sack of the season, when he outworked Saints RT Kyle Turley, shed the Saints blocker and got just enough of Brooks' ankle to drop him for a 14-yard loss. B

ig Blue caught a break when C Dusty Zeigler fell on a Collins fumble at the New York seven-yard line. Saints RDE Joe Johnson beat LT Lomas Brown for a nine-yard sack, and knocked the ball loose. Strahan added another sack to thwart New Orleans' drive that saw Jackson make a couple big third-down catches. Early in the second quarter, New York finally got something going on offense when Dayne busted a 55-yard run around left end. He used a nice kick-out block by Zeigler and a seal block from Brown for the big gain, which was Dayne's longest career run. His previous best was a 50-yarder last year against St. Louis.

"He got caught by DBs," Strahan laughed. "I think I'm faster than Ron." New York benefited from an offsides call (on Saints DT La'Roi Glover) and an unnecessary roughness penalty on Saints CB Kevin Mathis after Barber's nine-yard catch converted a third down. Dayne followed FB Greg Comella's lead block for a six-yard TD that capped Big Blue's 81-yard drive.

The Giants may have caught a break during the march when Fassel challenged a Comella fumble, despite replays showing that the ball came loose before he hit the ground. Referee Terry McAulay ruled that the pass was incomplete, giving Fassel his second successful challenge of the game. New York made sure that Barber also got in on the action. He set up New York's 51-yard scoring march with a 20-yard punt return, then capped it with a 14-yard jaunt around right end, as Big Blue broke on top, 14-0. After the Saints moved within 14-10 on a 32-yard John Carney field goal and a 32-yard Jackson TD catch, the Giants looked to put the game away with 6:05 to play. After LB Dhani Jones recovered New Orleans' onsides kick, the Giants were facing a third-and-16 from the Saints 46. Collins dropped back and made his nicest throw of the game, connecting with Joe Jurevicius, who remained in the starting line-up and caught two passes, for a 46-yard TD.

According to Collins, the Saints were playing the same defense all afternoon and leaving the middle of the field open. ‘Joe did a good job of splitting the safeties," Collins said. "I put it out there for him and let him go get it." "Kerry threw the ball right where it needed to be, which gave me an opportunity to get into the end zone," Jurevicius said. And allowed New York to come out of this game with a win. But, little did they know at the time, the excitement was only beginning.

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