The New York Giants continue to run up offensive statistics, most of them clearly impressive, and then they fail to score the points normally associated with such achievements. The same thing happened Sunday, when they held a scant 10-7 lead over the equally hapless Philadelphia Eagles until they punted the ball with 76 seconds to play.
It was supposed to go out of bounds, and they had Jeff Feagles, the NFL's most precise positional punter, on their side. Failing to go out, the ball was supposed to climb and soar, achieving long hang-time and giving the coverage team the chance to surround the return man.
Neither happened, and Feagles took the blame on his shoulders. "It was a poor punt," he said. "When I am kicking from the 50 or so, my first goal is to put it out of bounds as close to the end zone as possible. I never kick down the middle of the field. But I gave him the chance to pick it up on the bounce and the rest was a nightmare."
The return man was Brian Westbrook, and he didn't stop running until he had traversed the 84 yards necessary to produce a touchdown and a stunning 14-10 defeat for the now 2-4 Giants. There is ample evidence to suspect that their gunner, rookie David Tyree, was clipped by Eagles reserve linebacker Ike Reese. But no flag was thrown, nor did Westbrook step on the sideline, which the officials in the booth chose to review.
So the Giants lost the game, another in a set of heartbreakers this season, and once again the onus fell on the special teams.
But that isn't exactly fair. How does a team gain 339 total net yards while limiting the opponent to 134 (and just 47 in the air) and still manage to lose? The Giants went eight quarters without a touchdown before Kerry Collins threw a one-yard pass to tight end Jeremy Shockey. They lost the week before to New England, 17-6, and the week before that to Miami, 23-10.
"We just aren't getting the ball over the goal line," said Collins, who fumbled once on the Eagles' 5-yard line in the fourth quarter to kill what had been an exciting drive and make possible the winning punt return TD. "We seem to be doing everything right until we have to score, and then something happens."
Lots happened, much of it correctable. Now the fans are wondering how long before coach Jim Fassel becomes former coach Jim Fassel, and before general manager Ernie Accorsi announces his resignation or retirement. Should the losing continue -- and against the Vikings in Minnesota next Sunday nothing else might be expected -- such sweeping changes might become official shortly after the season ends.
"All we can do is get out the shovels and start digging," defensive tackle Keith Hamilton said. "It's a tough situation. I can't sit up here and say it's going to be all right, because time is getting short. We have to keep fighting. I don't understand quit, or giving up, or anything like that. I don't think it's in this team."
NOTES, QUOTES, ANECDOTES
--LG Rich Seubert, arguably the Giants' best offensive lineman this season, suffered a fracture of the tibia in his left leg, underwent surgery Sunday night and is almost certainly lost for the season.
"Richie has probably played as well as any lineman we have had for a couple of years and it hurts because we are thin at that position," coach Jim Fassel said. "As far as it being career ending or career threatening - I will know more about that after the surgery but what they tell me right now is - no. He should be able to come back, fine.
Seubert was replaced by free agent rookie tackle/guard Jeff Roehl, meaning the Giants' five O-line starters now include three rookies (Roehl, RG David Diehl, C Wayne Lucier).
--RCB Will Peterson (fractured vertebra) missed his first game Sunday. He was replaced by nickel back Ralph Brown, who immediately became the target for Eagles QB Donovan McNabb. Fortunately for Brown, McNabb was having another dreadful day and couldn't properly take advantage. But Brown did contribute a pass interference penalty worth 41 yards in the first quarter, enabling Philadelphia to take a 7-0 lead on that drive when Westbrook sliced through from the 6-yard line.
--LDE Michael Strahan had two sacks and five tackles, along with a pass defensed and a forced fumble. The two sacks took him over the 100 mark for his career, becoming only the 21st player in NFL history to reach that goal. He now has 101.5; former Giants LB Lawrence Taylor is well up the list at 132.5.
--RB Dorsey Levens, who had been on the Game Inactive list for four of the first five games (and didn't play a down in the game in which he was active), broke out in a big way. He had 16 carries for 64 yards with a long gain of 17. "I think he did enough to get a uniform," coach Jim Fassel said. "I will just have to look at it and see how I can come up with that."
--RB Tiki Barber (19 for 79) got his first extended rest in a game to make room for Levens. "I didn't mind it at all," he said, "and when it looked like I might be going back in, Dorsey was doing so well and I was cold, so it made sense to just leave him in there."
QUOTE TO NOTE: "When I saw Westbrook flying down the sideline, first I thought 'where is the flag on the clip' and then I thought, 'no way, no way'. I was sure somebody was going to get him but he took it and ran hard. I don't know what happened, but we are finding ways to lose at the end of games lately." -- QB Kerry Collins as he watched Brian Westbrook race 84 yards with the game-winning TD on a punt return with 1:16 remaining in the game.
STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL
REPORT CARD VS. EAGLES
PASSING OFFENSE: B -- Kerry Collins completed 22 of 36 passes for 174 yards, connected for one TD and did not throw an interception. He also accounted for 12 first downs in the air. He scattered his receivers, hitting RB Tiki Barber and TE Jeremy Shockey five times. Shockey caught the only TD. The pass blocking was reasonably effective even after LG Rich Seubert (broken leg) left in the second quarter.
RUSHING OFFENSE: B -- For the first time, Barber (19 carries, 79 yards) had some help from Dorsey Levens (16 for 64). Barber didn't fumble, which had become a major problem earlier in the season. In fact, the only two fumbles lost were by Collins and Shockey. The Giants gained 180 yards on the ground, their best figure of the season, and averaged 4.4 yards for 41 carries. Rookie Jeff Roehl, who filled in for Seubert, showed quickness on pulling and getting around the edge to lead Barber and then cracked open a few holes for the more powerful running Levens. The rest of the line, notably LT Luke Petitgout, played well.
PASS DEFENSE: B-plus -- This was too easy, with Eagles QB Donovan McNabb having another dreadful day. He was limited to nine completions in 23 attempts for 64 gross yards, but when the three sacks for 17 yards is factored, his 47 net yards became the lowest number allowed by a Giants' defense since 1960. The secondary played well, as might be expected with so much pressure being applied from the front seven. Ralph Brown, filling in for LCB Will Peterson (out for the season with a fractured vertebra), held his own but did get flagged for a 41-yard pass interference call on WR Todd Pinkston. FS Omar Stoutmire and MLB Mike Barrow led the team with six tackles.
RUSH DEFENSE: B -- While the Eagles could not mount much of a passing game, they were equally unable to dominate on the ground. Former star RB Duke Staley is hardly being used these days (one carry, five yards) and the bulk of the work is going to 5-8, 200-pound Brian Westbrook, who scored a 6-yard TD and took back the game-winning TD on an 84-yard punt return. Overall, the Eagles carried 23 times for 87 yards, an average of 3.8 yards per carry. Barrow, LDE Michael Strahan, weak-side LB Dhani Jones and RDE Kenny Holmes combined for 20 tackles and three sacks.
SPECIAL TEAMS: D-minus -- The kick coverage unit knew P Jeff Feagles was going to kick to the right late in the game, yet only TE Marcellus Rivers and rookie WR David Tyree were in place when the ball bounced once and into the hands of Westbrook. Tyree was careless and allowed himself to get inside and behind the returner, which opened up the hole that he should have blocked by remaining in front. He claims he was clipped and that the play should have come back. Film study confirms that Eagles LB Ike Reese did block from the back, the angle was such that it might barely have escaped a flag. Brian Mitchell continues to struggle in the return game -- he had three punt returns for 17 yards, two kickoff returns for 25 yards.
COACHING: D -- Coach Jim Fassel is still deficient in clock management, and his decision to run three ineffective running plays late in the game to force Philadelphia to burn its three timeouts backfired when Westbrook returned the ensuing punt 84 yards for the game winning TD. Had he shown more "go for the throat" aggression and attempted to get a first down, it would have been enough to kill the remaining time without having to kick and risk putting the ball in the Eagles' hands. It should be noted that defensive coordinator Johnnie Lynn has shown commendable improvement in his decisions after a few extremely rocky games (Miami, New England).
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