Blown coverages on defense. Two fourth-quarter turnovers inside the opponents' 20-yard line, including one in the waning moments. The loss of DT Keith Hamilton for the season with a torn right Achilles' tendon. Add it all up and you get a crushing loss for Big Blue to the Vick-less Falcons. The Giants (3-3) tried to will themselves through their final game before this Sunday's bye, but just didn't have enough.
New York entered the contest sans four starters – and that number almost doubled during the course of the game.
"Obviously that was a disappointing loss for us," Head Coach Jim Fassel said. "A number of our guys gave a gutsy performance out there. We were missing some people, we lost some people and I thought some guys really played their butts off."
But missing CB Will Peterson, TE Jeremy Shockey, DE Kenny Holmes and G Jason Whittle coming in, and losing Hamilton for the year and then DE Michael Strahan and S Omar Stoutmire for periods on Sunday was just more than Big Blue could overcome.
Johnson burned New York's sloppy pass defense for 257 aerial yards and two TDs – one rushing early, one passing late.
"The quarterback Johnson played a hell of a game," Fassel said. "But we made him look like he was ready for the Hall of Fame."
"They didn't ask him to carry the team," echoed MLB Micheal Barrow, who had a game-high 12 tackles. "He did what he had to do to win the game."
The Giants didn't. They allowed Atlanta to drive 94 yards for the winning touchdown in the fourth period, then watched in horror as WR Ron Dixon fumbled away any chance they had to tie it.
"Big plays in the passing game is what got us," Fassel said. "Definitely we blew some coverages and fumbled the ball twice inside the 30. You're not going to win that way."
You're also not going to win by allowing Atlanta a third-down success ratio of 62 percent (eight-of-13) or allowing the Falcons to average more than six yards per play.
"Sometimes we executed well and other times we just didn't have the correct coverages, we just didn't have guys in the right spots," Fassel said. "We had some people out of position, getting beat."
And as Fassel always likes to point out, you don't win games unless you win the turnover battle, which New York lost 2-0 against Atlanta.
However, the game was still there for the taking…had New York been able to score more than 10 points.
"Ten points is not enough to win a ball game," Fassel said.
QB Kerry Collins was efficient (20-31, 207 yards) but never able to get the offense untracked, especially when nearing the enemy's goal line.
"We have shown flashes of being very good," said Collins, who had one TD and one INT. "We just aren't finishing when we need to finish. It's one thing to be good up and down the field between the 20s, but we've got to get in our mentality that every time we get down there we're going to score."
While the Giants surely did not take the Falcons lightly, they still felt certain they should have emerged victorious.
"I'm tired of going 15 rounds with guys that we should knock out in the third or fourth round," Barrow said.
"I felt we should win," Fassel added. "I felt the guys fought hard."
And they were forced to fight even harder when they lost one of their key team leaders. Hamilton, injured during the first quarter, left Giants Stadium on crutches during the fourth period.
"Hammer is a great leader," Collins said. "He's a big part of our team, and not just our defense. He'll be missed."
Those who thought the Falcons would miss Vick, who was nursing a shoulder injury, were dead wrong.
Johnson, who completed 19-of-25 passes, was hot from the start. He engineered a monumental 17-play, 88-yard march and capped it with a 15-yard touchdown run. The march consumed 9:34. On the first play of the second quarter, Johnson, facing a third-and-five, scrambled toward the right sideline, pump-faked CB Jason Sehorn into the air and skipped in for the points.
"They did a good job of covering the play so that was the third option to get [Sehorn] off balance and make a play," Johnson stated. "It was a spur of the moment deal. I was able to get out to my right and it opened up. That is what you hope for because when you get in a position like that the defense is vulnerable. Then it becomes a sandlot play."
"He had a lot of time," Barrow said. "It was a freak thing; a crazy play. He made something happen."
The drive was almost thwarted practically before it began. On the second play of Atlanta's possession, Strahan and DE Frank Ferrara combined to sack Johnson, who coughed up the football. SLB Brandon Short couldn't come up with the ball, which was recovered by Falcons RB T.J. Duckett. On the next play, Johnson hit WR Willie Jackson for 14 yards to convert a third-and-nine.
Johnson later converted a third-and-11 with a 14-yard pass to RB Warrick Dunn shortly before fooling Sehorn into the air and running right by him for a 7-0 Atlanta lead.
But the Giants answered with a pretty lengthy drive of their own. A Falcons punt pinned Big Blue at its own two-yard line, but New York moved 78 yards in 13 plays, before settling for a 38-yard Matt Bryant field goal.
Key plays on the drive included TE Dan Campbell's 19-yard catch, Collins, under heavy pressure, firing to WR Ike Hilliard for 17 on third-and-12, rookie WR Tim Carter gaining nine yards on an end-around and RB Ron Dayne bulling for 18 more around left end.
But the Falcons added three more points to head into halftime ahead 10-3. TE Alge Crumpler's 30-yard catch-and-run moved Atlanta into range for a 31-yard field goal by Jay Feely.
Big Blue came roaring out of the locker room after halftime, marching 70 yards in 12 plays to knot the score at 10.
Hilliard chipped in a 16-yard catch on third-and-nine, before capping the march with an 18-yard TD grab. Collins pump-faked before finding Hilliard at the one-yard line. Hilliard shook off CB Juran Bolden's tackle attempt and waltzed in for the tying score.
Ferrara's six-yard sack on Johnson ended Atlanta's next possession.
The Giants took over and were on the move again when Bolden reached in front of a Collins pass intended for Hilliard and picked off the ball at the Atlanta six-yard line.
"From my vantage point, [Ike] looked open," Collins said. "You try to make plays, you see what you see and you throw it. It didn't work out that time."
"I saw an opportunity to make a play," Bolden said. "[Hilliard] ran a little post pattern and I just ran out there and undercut him and laid out."
The Falcons capitalized, streaking 94 yards in only six plays for the game-winning TD. Johnson hit WR Shawn Jefferson, who had gotten behind CB Will Allen, deep for a 63-yard gain. Allen had good coverage on the play, but just misjudged the ball.
"We felt we could take advantage of the one-on-one coverage," Jefferson said. "Doug threw it up and I made a play on it and it turned out that that was a big play in the game."
"That was a stupid play; a stupid play," Allen said. "That [should be] a pick. I had him by about five yards. I slowed down and stumbled."
After Jefferson's big play, Atlanta WR Brian Finneran took over; grabbing passes on consecutive plays, including a 14-yard TD.
Johnson executed a perfect play-fake before finding an open Finneran for the score with 7:57 to play.
The Giants' attempted comeback got all the way down to the Atlanta 17-yard line before Dixon fumbled the ball – and the game – away. The Giants had already successfully completed one fourth-down conversion. Now, on fourth-and-three, Collins hit Dixon across the middle, but he lost the ball and the Falcons took over with 3:22 to play.
"What can you say about those things," Collins asked. "Guy is trying to make a play, he's going down and he gets stripped. He didn't want to fumble; he didn't want to make that mistake. But it happened and next time it won't."
Atlanta was able to run out all but the remaining 18 seconds, which the Giants could do nothing with.
So the ballgame – and New York's hopes of enjoying their week off in first place – was over.
"We made a lot of errors and mental mistakes," Barrow said. "We felt we beat ourselves. Champions do not beat themselves."