EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. – OK, you figure out the Giants. For the first half, they looked like the dregs of the league, trailing the lowly Cowboys, 24-7. But in the second half, the offense that couldn't move, the defense that couldn't make any stops and the inconsistent special teams all came together.
It all added up to an improbable overtime win for Big Blue when Morten Andersen, playing in his 300th NFL game, calmly drilled a 42-yard field to give the Giants a 27-24 win. "I'm too old for this," GM Ernie Accorsi said. "To come back like this is incredible."
"When you come from behind that far and the way we started, you're very proud," Head Coach Jim Fassel said. "What we did was use character, toughness and a belief in one another. They never stopped, they fought."
And they won. New York overcame one of its worst halves in recent memory to win the ballgame. QB Kerry Collins served as a microcosm of the contest, throwing two passes that were intercepted and returned for touchdowns in the first half, and fumbling once, which led directly to a Dallas TD.
"In my mind it was like it can't get any worse," Collins said. "I mean two returns for touchdowns in one game, that hasn't happened to me in a while." But he bounced back in the second half, and thanks to five consecutive key plays by the defense and special teams, was able to lead his troops to victory in front of 78,673 Giants Stadium fans. In addition to the two early picks, Collins finished the game with 24 completions of 34 passes for 280 yards and three TDs – two to Joe Jurevicius and one to Ike Hilliard.
"Kerry was good," Fassel said. "He never lost his composure." As good as Collins was in the second half, the defense was better. The defensive effort was bolstered by the presence of LB Jessie Armstead, who wasn't expected to play after straining his calf and hamstring the week before. Dallas' first three possessions after halftime resulted in interceptions. Its fourth drive ended in a blocked punt, and the fifth Dallas attempt to stave off the Giants' comeback resulted in another INT.
But even with all that being said, the Giants were forced to work overtime to even their mark at 4-4. Eleven-point favorites coming into the game, the Giants needed a huge sack from Micheal Barrow (game-high 14 tackles) in the extra session. "To get that sack at that time was huge," Fassel said. "They were nearing field goal range and ready to kick it."
Then the Giants turned to their future Hall-of-Fame kicker. Fassel called timeout so that his training staff and head of security Mike Murphy could pat down the turf. Andersen said that it didn't ice him in the least. "I tried to end it a little earlier but it didn't work out," said Andersen of his 59-yard field goal attempt that fell short as regulation ended.
But on the overtime attempt, which came with 7:48 to play, the kick was true. Andersen now has 29 game-winning field goals, five in overtime. "The [kick] in overtime was solid," said Andersen, who received the game ball from Fassel. "It was a lot of fun to end the game."
"It says a lot about our team," Fassel said. "We just kept fighting, crawling and scratching. It showed character." Dallas drove to the game's opening score, a 22-yard field goal by Tim Seder. The big play in the nine-play, 65-yard march came when veteran Dallas TE Jackie Harris got behind LB Brandon Short for a 28-yard gain. The Cowboys made the first big defensive play of the game late in the first quarter. Cowboys DE Byron Frisch swept around LT Lomas Brown and slapped the ball out of Collins' right hand just before he was about the throw. The loose ball bounced right to Cowboys DT Brandon Noble, who returned it six yards to the Giants 15-yard line. Fassel challenged the play, but the original call was upheld. Two plays later CB Will Allen was beaten in coverage by Cowboys WR Joey Galloway for a 16-yard TD catch, giving Dallas a 10-0 lead at the end of the first quarter.
Things continued to get worse for Big Blue. Ron Dixon finally broke through on a kickoff return, carrying the ball all the way into Dallas territory. However, S DeWayne Patmon was called for holding, costing the Giants close to 50 yards in field position. For New York, the second quarter began much like the first quarter ended. Amani Toomer's acrobatic sideline catch was negated by a Giants' penalty.
According to referee Bernie Kukar, the Giants' "entire interior line was downfield." On the next play, Coakley returned Collins' pick 29 yards for the score. That was the second consecutive week that Coakley returned an INT for a score. Collins' pass was intended for TE Dan Campbell. But the Giants roared back. Big Blue moved 63 yards in four plays to get on the scoreboard. On a play-action, Collins hit Toomer for a 48-yard gain that moved the ball to the Dallas four-yard line. On the next play, Collins found Jurevicius in the end zone for the score. Dallas CB Duane Hawthorne was turned around on the play. "That was just a fade that Kerry threw in the perfect spot," Jurevicius explained. "It was thrown so that only I could catch it."
The apparent back-breaker for the Giants came right before halftime. Collins had moved the team downfield and the Giants, at the Dallas 33, were threatening to cut into the Cowboys' lead. Instead, Collins telegraphed another pass, this one to Toomer, and Dallas CB Mario Edwards stepped in front and returned the ball 71 yards for a 24-7 Dallas lead late in the opening half. Dixon fumbled the ensuing kickoff return after being hit by Dallas S Darren Woodson, and S Lynn Scott recovered at the Giants 27.
But the Giants survived because Seder missed a 34-yarder wide right as the clock expired. The Giants headed into halftime on the wrong end of a 24-7 score. But they returned to the field confident. "There was a feel at halftime that we were going to win," Campbell said. "We knew we were going to win. Everyone was confident; there was a very positive atmosphere."
After a slow start to the second half, rookie CB Will Peterson stepped up. But not before a little good fortune fell at the Giants' feet. The Cowboys looked to have taken a 31-7 lead when Stoerner found Harris in the end zone. However, Ismail was flagged for offensive pass interference. Two plays later, Peterson picked off a Stoerner pass intended for Ismail in the end zone. The Giants took the ball and swiftly moved 80 yards in six plays. The drive was mostly RB Ron Dayne (34 yards, including 21-yard and nine-yard catches) before Collins connected with a streaking Jurevicius down the middle of the field for a 34-yard TD. Jurevicius split the middle of the Dallas secondary and was wide open for the points.
"I just ran a seam route to pin down the safety," he said. "I have to give credit to the coaches for calling that play." CB Jason Sehorn tried to repeat history when he intercepted a Stoerner pass intended for Ismail in the end zone late in the third quarter. However, it looked like the Giants had struck again. Instead it was the officials who made the big impact. Collins overthrew a pass to Hilliard, but Toomer was Johnny-on-the-spot, catching the ball and sprinting the remaining 57 yards for the score.
Not so fast. The call was challenged by Dallas Coach Dave Campo and overturned. Kukar determined from video replays that the ball had hit the ground. But on the first play of the final period, LB Dhani Jones intercepted a Stoerner pass and returned the ball to midfield. That set up Morten Andersen's 40-yard field goal with 10:41 to play.
"The tailback ran to the flat and I just looked back and got it," Jones said. "I just wanted to get everyone fired up." Then the defense and special teams, hardly sharp earlier in the afternoon, took over. New York held Dallas three-and-out. Then WR Thabiti Davis blocked a Micah Knorr punt and fell on the ball to give the Giants the ball at the 14. "I've been close all year," Davis said. "I just got tired of being close. It was a collective effort." Two plays later, Collins rolled right, and with 8:19 to play, Hilliard caught a nine-yard score to tie the game.
The Giants defense did it again. This time, Short made the INT, stepping in front of a pass for WR Darrin Chiaverini, and returning it to the Dallas 18. "I had ‘flat' responsibility and the quarterback scrambled," Short explained. "The number one [receiver] ran inside so the quarterback had to throw it all the way across the field. It hung up in the air and I was able to get to it. "It felt great to finally make a play and be able to make an impact on the game."
The Giants moved inside the Dallas five, but Dayne, in the process of fighting for extra yardage, had the ball stripped and recovered by Cowboys LB Orantes Grant with 4:23 to play. The Cowboys inserted Ryan Leaf into the game, and it didn't take the troubled QB long to make an impact. Deep in his own territory, he connected with Ismail for a 38-yard gain. It looked like the ball hit the ground, but Fassel had already used his two challenge opportunities and couldn't contest the call. But again, the Giants defense stiffened.
Even local product Frank Ferrara got in on the action. He stepped in for Ross Kolodziej, who was starting for injured DT Keith Hamilton, late in the game and sacked Leaf. Ferrara used a spin move to make the crucial play. "I went outside, spun and saw Leaf," said Ferrara, playing in his first game. "But I thought he threw the ball away. I didn't know I sacked him until after the play. Then I lost all control."
The Giants took over with 52 seconds to play, but their drive stalled, and Andersen missed a 59-yarder at the buzzer. Dallas won the coin toss to start overtime. The defense did its job, stopping the Cowboys compliments of Barrow's 10-yard sack. Then the offense took over. Collins hit Toomer for a 14-yard gain, then Hilliard for 33 more on third down. Collins then found RB Tiki Barber for 10 yards down the middle of the field, setting up Andersen's 42-yarder to win the game.
"I told them that this game, fighting back to get it, is one peg in our season," Fassel said. "We've got to fight back to get our season. If we've got the character to do it in this game, then we've got the character to do it for the whole season."