The Giants finally exorcised the ghosts of St. Louis and its powerful Rams by virtue of a 26-21 decision that came down to the final minutes. "We had a sign in the locker room all week that said, ‘finish the job,' " DT Keith Hamilton said. "That's what we did."
It took all hands on deck to do so.
"Everyone we needed to make a play to win made a play today," DE Michael Strahan added.
QB Kerry Collins was lights out, setting a Giants regular-season completion record by completing 22-of-26 passes for 307 yards. CB Jason Sehorn scored a touchdown on an INT. RB Tiki Barber, still slowed by various ailments, posted 110 all-purpose yards on 25 touches. Receivers Ike Hilliard (97 yards) and Amani Toomer (92) both approached 100 receiving yards on four catches apiece.
K Matt Bryant, playing in only his second NFL game, drilled all four field-goal tries and was solid on kickoffs as well.
Yet the crowd of 65,932 was fully confident as the Rams took over in the final minutes, needing a touchdown to win the game. However, their excitement and belief was extremely short-lived. On the first play of the Rams' final, fatal possession, second-year corner Will Peterson intercepted Rams QB Kurt Warner's pass intended for Torry Holt.
After the officials reviewed the play, it was determined that "there was no visual evidence to reverse the call," according to referee Dick Hantak, and the Giants were victorious, evening their mark at 1-1 and dropping the defending NFC champs to 0-2.
"We didn't want to start the season 0-2 no matter who we were playing," said RB Tiki Barber, who played through toe and hamstring injuries. "We know we're good enough to beat any team in this league."
"I'm really proud of this group," Head Coach Jim Fassel said. "I think we have higher expectations and desires than a lot of people think or that we're capable of. I think we've played two solid games and this one coming in here and beating this team, in their backyard, I thought was quite an accomplishment. Our guys weren't going to stop unless they were going to win.
"That was kind of the theme of the week and we're all going to cross the finish line and we left some unfinished business down here last year and I'm really proud of this group the way we played." Last year the Giants dropped a disappointing, heartbreaking 15-14 decision in St. Louis that stung them so badly they fell short the following week against Philadelphia – a two-game stretch that Fassel admitted ruined New York's season after a 3-1 start.
"We didn't let last week's loss affect us," LB Brandon Short said. "We just took care of business."
"This is the best feeling in the world," Strahan said. "Last year was sickening; this is how it's supposed to be.
"Our attitude wasn't we can win this game, it was we will win this game."
The Giants knew it wouldn't be easy, and it certainly wasn't. Before Peterson's game-sealing pick – after which New York just knelt on the ball because the Rams were out of timeouts – they had already made another huge defensive play. Barber couldn't even watch as the Rams, trailing by five points, lined up for a fourth-and-inches from their own 40-yard line with only three minutes to play.
Barber's blind faith was rewarded. Rams RB Marshall Faulk, who hurt the Giants several times during the course of the contest, ran left tackle and was stuffed for no gain before fumbling the ball, with Strahan recovering.
While MLB Micheal Barrow (team-high eight tackles) was credited with the stop, Strahan also said that Hamilton and RDE Kenny Holmes had a big hand in the crucial play.
Holmes also excelled in St. Louis. He posted two huge plays back-to-back – a six-yard sack of Warner and then a tipped pass that Sehorn returned 31 yards for a touchdown.
"I saw it come off [Holmes'] hand and it started to drop straight down," Sehorn explained. "I wanted to make sure I caught it before I started to run. It was a nice little gift."
Despite several missed opportunities to put the Rams away, the Giants came through when it counted.
New York stormed right down the field 68 yards with its opening possession, but had to settle for a field goal. Big Blue, buoyed by Hilliard's 38-yard gain on third down, moved all the way inside the Rams three-yard line. Three plays – all predictable runs – netted them less than a yard, and they were forced to settle for Bryant's 20-yard field goal.
New York had a chance to hang an early seven on the mighty Rams, but just like in the season-opening loss, the running game came up short. Especially questionable was the play-call on third-and-goal – a pitch to RB Ron Dayne that lost yardage.
Dayne had a horrific afternoon, netting a mere 18 yards on 11 carries.
The Giants dodged a bullet early in the second period when Rams K Jeff Wilkins missed a 35-yard field goal wide left. It appeared that St. Louis was starting to get untracked as the Rams put together a 50-yard drive that bridged the first and second quarters. Warner started to get hot; connecting with WR Isaac Bruce on three consecutive passes – for gains of five yards, 12 and 10. But Barrow made a key third-down tackle on Faulk that halted the drive and forced the faulty kick.
New York extended its lead to 10-0 by virtue of Jeremy Shockey's first NFL touchdown. Shockey's 28-yard score capped the Giants' eight-play, 75-yard drive. On third-and-two from the Rams 28, Shockey was split right in one-on-one coverage with Rams LB Tommy Polley. New York's highly-touted first-round pick faked an inside route before continuing straight down the field, collecting Collins' toss and beating Rams S Kim Herring to the goal line.
"I just love it when they cover me one-on-one," Shockey said. "I don't care who the guy is, I'm going to beat him."
"I had a pretty good feeling about that play," Collins added.
Then the defense took over. Holmes beat Rams LT Orlando Pace for a sack. On the next play Strahan applied the heat from the other side. Holmes tipped Warner's pass right into the waiting arms of Sehorn, who looked like a running back returning the ball 31 yards for a touchdown and a 17-0 New York lead.
But the Rams wouldn't be the Rams had they just gone away quietly. Warner led his troops right back down the field, capping a 12-play, 80-yard march with a six-yard TD pass to Ricky Proehl. Warner completed eight-of-nine passes for 63 yards on the drive.
The tide continued to turn as the Giants were turned away three-and-out and Ron Dixon committed a foolish penalty on punt coverage. He was flagged 15 yards for interfering with Terrence Wilkins. Yet the Giants managed to get to halftime still leading by 10 points.
The Rams took the kickoff to start the third quarter and wasted little time cutting into Big Blue's lead. Faulk busted off a 44-yard gallop, and would have scored if not for a great effort by SS Shaun Williams, who brought down the league's best back inside the 10-yard line. Three plays later, Faulk dove over left tackle from the one and the Rams were within three.
The Giants answered with three points of their own, but easily could have had a touchdown. Collins didn't see Barber, who was all alone at the end of the line of scrimmage. They settled for a 32-yard field goal.
At the same time, it appeared the Giants caught a break. On that third down play, Rams DE Grant Wistrom sacked Collins, who appeared to fumble on the play. However, the officials had already whistled the play dead.
After a Collins INT late in the third quarter, it looked like certain disaster for Big Blue. Collins' pass was tipped by DT Brian Young and intercepted by S Adam Archuleta, giving St. Louis the ball at the New York 37-yard line. But two plays later, the snap from center Andy McCollum never got to Warner, and Barrow recovered the loose ball.
The Giants capitalized – sort of. They used a 30-yard hook-up between Collins and Toomer to get into St. Louis' red zone, but the drive again stalled. New York was four-for-four in the red zone Sunday, but all four scores were field goals. Bryant again came on and hit a 34-yard field goal, extending Big Blue's lead to 23-14 early in the fourth quarter.
"We'd like to score more touchdowns," Collins said. "But when you can put points on the board against these guys you have to take them." But the Rams continued to creep even closer by virtue of Faulk's eight-yard TD romp, in which he left several Giants, including DT Lance Legree, with no clue where and how the elusive Rams back got free. Before Faulk's score, Holt found plenty of room in the middle of New York's defense for a 34-yard gain.
The Giants were able to put points on the board, but again failed to reach the end zone. Collins connected with Toomer for 32; then Hilliard for 26 more, which set up Bryant's 25-yard field goal that stretched the lead to 26-21 with 4:19 to play.
New York knew the game's outcome rested with the defense. The players involved in the fourth-down stop of Faulk and Peterson were clearly up to the challenge.
And so the Giants disposed of the Rams, who entered the contest favored by 12.5 points. "I don't know who the odds-makers are," Barber said, "but they certainly don't have their finger on our pulse."