ST. LOUIS – The Giants stood toe-to-toe with the powerful Rams Sunday. But in the end, it was New York that finally blinked, allowing St. Louis to come away with a hard-fought, physical 16-15 win at The Dome at America's Center.
The Giants (3-2) gave St. Louis (5-0) all it could handle, but came up just short in the final minutes. Rams rookie S Adam Archuleta forced a fumble on WR Joe Jurevicius with New York driving to what would have been the game-winning field goal attempt.
"This is very difficult," Head Coach Jim Fassel said. "I thought they played hard and tried hard. We'll walk out of here with our heads held high."
Many players were upset with the officiating during the contest, as the Giants were flagged 12 times for 125 yards in losses, including key questionable calls late in the game.
"When you take on the champion in their own backyard, you can't leave it up to the judges," MLB Micheal Barrow said. "You have to knock them out. We left it up to the judges. Mission incomplete."
"I'm not discussing the officials," Fassel snapped after the game.
Barrow was one of three key defenders (DT Keith Hamilton and CB Will Allen) that missed significant time due to injury, but the unit still limited the Rams to 315 total yards and one late touchdown.
"Our whole defense played outstanding," Fassel said. The defense limited Rams star RB Marshall Faulk to only 63 total yards, before knocking him out of the game in the third quarter with a right MCL sprain. A crowd of 65,992 cheered wildly as the Rams defense tried to protect its late lead. Out of timeouts, the Giants took over trailing by a point with 1:51 to play. QB Kerry Collins, who threw for 250 yards, connected twice with WR Ike Hilliard, who moments earlier had caught New York's go-ahead score. That moved the Giants to the Rams 39 with 1:12 to play. Collins dropped back and fired a quick slant to Jurevicius (six catches, 101 yards). Jurevicius was hit immediately by Archuleta and the ball popped into the air. Rams RDE Grant Wistrom caught the gift, and the Rams were two kneel-downs away from the victory.
"I didn't see the play because they were blitzing," Collins said. "But give credit to [Wistrom] for hustling downfield and making that type of play." Collins said that he made sure to talk to Jurevicius after the play. "I told him to keep his head up," Collins said. "This is a tough league and things like that happen and you do things you wish didn't happen, but it's part of playing; it's part of the game."
LDE Michael Strahan had a career-high four sacks, destroying Rams RT Ryan Tucker all afternoon. Strahan was still steaming after the game. "I felt great, but what good is it because we lost?" he asked. "We played hard; what else can you do?"
When asked to assess the play of New York's defense, Rams QB Kurt Warner said, "Way too much Strahan."
Many Giants felt that they made way too many mistakes to win.
"It's tough to lose like that," C Dusty Zeigler said. "We should have won. We need to play both tough and smart, not just tough. Everyone was disappointed. We felt we had the win. "I'd rather lose that game that way and be a New York Giant than win and be a St. Louis Ram."
However, being a Ram on Sunday may have been beneficial, as they seemed to get most of the calls. There was the penalty on Ron Dayne for unsportsmanlike conduct, the pass interference on Sam Garnes in the end zone and the holding call on Dan Campbell that cost New York three points.
All three guys played well Sunday afternoon, but likely will be remembered for their questionable penalties. "It was all of us," Collins said. "There were a ton of things that went into that game that it shouldn't have come down to what it came down to."
Again, the Giants were without RB Tiki Barber (hamstring), but Dayne responded with 88 rushing yards, averaging 4.4 yards per carry. The Giants vowed to come out firing and they certainly did. New York took the ball to start the game, and they were in the end zone six plays later. Collins led the troops 80 yards in 2:54 for an early lead. He connected with WR Amani Toomer for a 42-yard gain. Toomer clearly pushed Rams CB Aeneas Williams on the play, but no flag was thrown. Dayne did the rest from there; barreling 14 yards before running a left sweep the final four yards for a touchdown. Dayne followed the blocks of LT Lomas Brown and FB Greg Comella to pay dirt.
Big Blue survived a big scare once St. Louis took possession. On the Rams first play, Warner underthrew a pass to WR Torry Holt. In going for the interception CB Jason Sehorn and Barrow collided. Fortunately for New York, Sehorn was able to stay in the game (and beautifully bat away Warner's next pass), and Barrow only missed a few plays. The defense rose to the challenge and held St. Louis out of the end zone. The Rams moved all the way to New York's 10, with help from a 37-yard catch by WR Ricky Proehl, but were forced to settle for a 27-yard Jeff Wilkins field goal after Garnes almost intercepted Warner's third-down pass.
A few plays earlier, Garnes sent a message to Faulk, blasting the running back up high after a short run. Later in the first quarter, the Giants shot themselves in the foot twice, leaving the Rams in much better field position. Two penalties (LB Jack Golden hold, G Jason Whittle illegal use of hands) forced two re-kicks and instead of pinning the Rams at their own eight-yard line, St. Louis began its possession at the 35. Big Blue's defense did a good of holding once again later in the opening period. St. Louis was again forced to settle for a 33-yard Wilkins FG after a third-down sack by LDT Cornelius Griffin stopped St. Louis's drive, which had reached New York's five-yard line. Holt (22 yards) and Faulk (19) paced the march with receptions. But the Giants had survived the opening 15 minutes, and the first quarter ended with Big Blue holding a 7-6 lead.
Twice in a row in the second quarter, the Giants held the Rams three-and-out. The defensive line, led by Strahan, was applying great pressure, and Defensive Coordinator John Fox mixed in occasional blitzes that kept Warner and Co. off-balance. New York blew a golden opportunity to extend its lead before halftime. Morten Andersen booted through a 41-yard field goal that gave the Giants a 10-6 lead. But Campbell was called for holding and Andersen's next try – from 51 yards – was well off the mark. The Rams took advantage of New York's misfortune and marched 52 yards right back down the field. Wilkins hit a 25-yarder as the first half expired, giving St. Louis a 9-7 lead. The Giants stood toe-to-toe with the team most consider the NFL's best, but had to feel like they missed way too many first-half opportunities. They would feel the same way when the contest ended.
The Giants tried to steal the momentum back early in the third quarter when Garnes intercepted Warner's pass at the New York 37. The Rams were facing a third down, when Warner looked deep down the right sideline for WR Isaac Bruce. Garnes came flying over and made the pick. That snapped Warner's streak off 110 consecutive passes without an INT. But Big Blue couldn't do anything offensively and gave the ball back to the dangerous Rams. The Giants appeared to have caught a break when Barrow fell on Faulk's fumble at the St. Louis 28, but on the next play, Collins' pass to Toomer was picked off by Rams CB Dexter McCleon near the end zone and returned to the Rams 26. Late in the third quarter, the Giants forced Faulk to cough up the football once again. FS Shaun Williams met the Rams shifty back head on and the ball popped free. Griffin was there to recover at the St. Louis 34. After handling the ball more than 500 consecutive times without a fumble, Faulk's turnover was his third in his previous 23 touches. This time, the Giants capitalized. On New York's next play, Dayne rumbled for 17 yards. On a third-and-18 from the 25, Collins calmly dropped back and hit Hilliard for the go-ahead TD with 13:33 to play. Hilliard started outside, then cut back in front of Archuleta for the score.
"I had great protection," Collins said. "They brought some guys; I had to step up a little, but it was a nice, soft pocket. Ike ran a great route. It was a call where if he was open, I could throw it, if not, I could throw it out of bounds. Certainly it was a great move by Ike and I just had to put it in there."
After the Giants failed to capitalize on another Rams turnover (a Warner fumble forced by Strahan), the Rams finally got on the board. They moved 76 yards in 12 plays, including a key fourth-down conversion. Warner connected with Canidate for seven yards to move the sticks on a fourth-and-four. Then, a very costly pass interference penalty on Garnes in the end zone left the Rams at the New York one-yard line. Strahan and RDE Kenny Holmes knocked out Warner on the play. Rams back-up QB Jamie Martin came in and handed the ball to Canidate, who took it in from there. Warner returned for the two-point try, but it was unsuccessful.
The Giants had two final chances to regain the lead – the first led to a Rodney Williams punt, the second Jurevicius' infamous fumble. As a result, New York flew home wondering what might have been. "We made too many mistakes out there today," Toomer said. "The penalties and the turnovers really cost us. You can't do that and beat a good team. We were in the game but we just couldn't pull it out. They got the big play at the end."
However, Strahan said that he and his Giants mates would welcome a rematch with the mighty Rams. "If we continue to play like we did today and they do too, we could see them again down the road."