Alive and well

<P>EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. – All week Jim Fassel impressed upon his team about having and maintaining a will to win. He even inserted a note on the front page of their scouting report books to remind them of the importance of never giving up. </P>

Apparently it worked. For the second consecutive week, Kerry Collins led the Giants on a lengthy, last-minute, game-winning drive as the Giants improved to .500 (7-7) and kept their playoff hopes very much alive. Collins connected with WR Ike Hilliard on a seven-yard touchdown pass with only 20 seconds to play. New York squeezed by Seattle, 27-24, in front of 78,119 delirious fans at Giants Stadium.

Now, Big Blue heads down the New Jersey Turnpike Sunday not simply to finish out the season, but to fight for the NFC East title. With a win, the Giants would move within a game of Philadelphia. Should that occur, New York could steal the NFC East crown that is still theirs the following Sunday with a win against Green Bay and a Philly loss in Tampa. Had New York stumbled against the Seahawks they would have been eliminated from the playoff picture by virtue of Tampa Bay's victory over New Orleans.

Even if Big Blue falls short of capturing the division, they're still very much alive for a wild card spot. "Our theme all week was the will to win," Head Coach Jim Fassel said. "Those are things that can't be taught – it's got to come from within them."

It came from within Collins, who engineered a 10-play, 96-yard drive a week after he led his troops 70 yards to beat the Cardinals.

"I'm proud of our guys," said Collins, who suffered a self-inflicted gash on the right side of his head after ripping off his helmet in celebration. "As long as there's time on the clock, you keep fighting. Just believe in what you're doing."

Collins believed when New York took over at its own one-yard line with 7:20 to play. The Giants trailed 24-20 at that point. "I got in the huddle and said, ‘We're going 99 [yards], let's go' " Collins said. "Then we went three and out." New York then took over at its own four-yard line with 2:52 remaining. "OK, we're going 96, let's go,"

Collins confidently told his mates. They did. Collins kicked things off immediately with a 28-yard pass to Amani Toomer, up the left sideline. "That was a big way to start it off, getting Amani on that slant and go," Collins said. On the next play Collins, who was 7-of-10 on the march, connected with Toomer again, this time for 11 yards. Then came the two-minute warning.

"The biggest thing where we've improved in the two-minute [offense] is that we've been more patient," Fassel said. Collins was patient enough to let WR Joe Jurevicius, who had missed the previous two games with a hamstring injury, get into the action. Jurevicius caught consecutive passes for gains of 18 and seven yards. Then came a pass to Hilliard for another seven-yard gain.

All of a sudden, Big Blue was at the Seattle 25-yard line with a minute to play. After an incompletion to Hilliard, Collins went right back to number 88, who hauled in an 18-yard gain to the Seahawks seven. Following two incompletions to Jurevicius, on third-and-goal, Collins dropped back and found Hilliard in the middle of the end zone for the game-winning points.

"Ike just does whatever he can to get open," Collins explained. "He has a four-way go. I knew Ike was going to put his foot in the ground and come out." He came out with the ball, and the Giants with the win. Collins, who finished with 30 completions in 47 attempts for 338 yards, wasn't spectacular – until he needed to be. And he got the help that he's been missing in previous weeks. Toomer stepped up and led the Giants with eight catches for 124 yards. Hilliard added seven grabs for 105 yards. Heck, even RB Ron Dayne got in on the action – he ripped off a 31-yard run for New York's first points of the game.

The Seahawks broke onto the scoreboard first, traveling 81 yards in 10 plays after a beautiful 61-yard punt by Rodney Williams. Who else but Hawks RB Shaun Alexander capped the drive? He gained 50 yards on only six carries on the march, scoring from 29 yards out. The Hawks back slashed through a hole on the left side of his line and ran untouched until FS Shaun Williams pushed him into the end zone.

That was about all Williams did wrong Sunday, however. He led the team with 12 tackles and also broke up a pass. And the Giants bottled up Alexander after that, holding him to a total of 96 rushing yards. Seattle almost scored a few plays earlier when Hawks WR Darrell Jackson had CB Jason Sehorn beaten in the end zone, but the receiver allowed Seattle QB Matt Hasselbeck's pass to slip right through his hands.

Seattle used a key third-down catch by TE Christian Fauria to keep the drive alive. Fauria was double-covered but still came up with the ball for a six-yard gain on third-and-four. But on this afternoon, Dayne wouldn't go away quietly. He answered Alexander's lengthy scoring jaunt with one of his own. Dayne, taken eight picks before Alexander in the 2000 Draft, busted off a 31-yard touchdown run. TE Dan Campbell went in motion and made a great block in the middle of the line.

 Dayne followed solid blocks from LG Glenn Parker and LT Lomas Brown and shot through the line. He rumbled toward the goal line where two Seattle DBs – S Reggie Tongue and CB Willie Williams – were waiting. It didn't matter. Dayne was not to be denied, and he bulled over the goal line for his fifth rushing touchdown of the season. Dayne's run, which whipped the fans into a frenzy, finished a five-play, 76-yard drive that tied the score at 7. Earlier on the drive, Collins converted a third-and-three with a 26-yard throw to Hilliard.

"I was extremely happy for him," Fassel said of Dayne, who rushed for 42 yards, averaging six yards per tote. "I thought Ron ran the ball extremely well."

But early in the second quarter, Hasselbeck went back to work. He found WR Koren Robinson down the right sideline and delivered a perfect strike for a 42-yard gain. Robinson separated himself from rookie CB Will Allen and made the nice, sliding catch. But the Giants held and Seattle had to settle for a 20-yard field goal from Rian Lindell.

On Hasselbeck's third-down pass to Robinson, Sehorn came close to intercepting the pass, close enough that Fassel challenged the call. However, the original call that Sehorn failed to control the ball in the end zone was upheld. But shortly thereafter the Giants defense came through in a big way. MLB Micheal Barrow (11 tackles, one sack, one forced fumble) came crashing through the line and sacked Hasselbeck from behind, stripping the ball in the process. LDE Michael Strahan picked up the loose ball, beat one weak tackle attempt, scampered 13 yards and scored to give New York a 14-10 lead. The score was Strahan's third career TD.

"He broke a tackle," Fassel said. "He dropped his shoulder and made a move on the guy [Seattle FB Mack Strong] to stay on his feet. It was a hell of a play. He wasn't going to pitch it to anyone."

The Seahawks defense apparently became jealous of their New York counterpart's ability to score. Collins dropped back to pass from his own six-yard line, faked a handoff and backpedaled into his own end zone. Before he could get the ball off, Seahawks DT Antonio Cochran hit him and swiped the ball free. Seahawks DT John Randle fell on the loose ball in the back of the end zone for a 17-14 Seattle lead. New York raced to a 32-yard Morten Andersen field goal to knot the score at 17 heading into halftime.

The Giants moved 59 yards in 10 plays. Jurevicius recorded back-to-back catches for 14 and 13 yards to move the drive along. New York's second half didn't exactly get off to a solid start. Ron Dixon, who earlier hurt the team with his decision to field a kickoff that was headed out of bounds at the Giants 15-yard line, fumbled the opening kickoff of the second half when Seahawks LB Marcus Bell hit him. Seattle CB Paul Miranda recovered at the Giants 30. After Alexander gained 10 yards on a screen pass, he then caught another and raced untouched into the end zone for a 16-yard score.

Later in the third quarter, RDT Keith Hamilton came up with a big sack on Hasselbeck with Seattle deep in its own territory. That led to New York's scoring possession that bridged the third and fourth quarters. Andersen's 33-yard field goal capped a 12-play, 49-yard drive that sliced Seattle's lead to 24-20. RB Tiki Barber (95 all-purpose yards) gained a yard on a third-and-one and Hilliard added 19 more on a third-and-10 to aid the march. New York missed a golden opportunity when Hasselbeck dropped a snap that began to roll behind him. However, Seattle averted disaster when Alexander fell on the ball at the Seattle 15. SS Sam Garnes was flagged 15 yards for unnecessary roughness, further letting the Hawks off the hook.

But rookie CB Will Peterson broke up a third-down pass to Jackson to end the possession. The clubs each exchanged two possessions before New York took over with less than three minutes to play and, for the second straight week, flipped the switch just in time. After New York scored, former starting CB Dave Thomas, who was subbing for an injured Sehorn, picked off Hasselbeck to seal the deal.

"I saw the ball going, I just broke on it," Thomas said. "We had guys underneath so it forced him to throw the ball pretty high. I just read on it and broke on it."

End of story. End of suspense – for the time being, at least. "I don't know what it is, but when the game's on the line that's when we come out and shine," Toomer said. "That's the sign of a championship team. We proved we're a championship team last year and we're going to prove it again this year."


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