Giants outlast Birds, clinch playoff spot

EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. – In the end of an epic battle, despite countless missed opportunities and miscues, Big Blue came through. Matt Bryant's 39-yard field goal with 9:50 to play in overtime gave New York its fourth consecutive victory and clinched a playoff berth for the streaking Giants (10-6). New York topped Philadelphia, 10-7, in front of 78,782 mostly delirious fans at Giants Stadium.

"My story is a small similarity to this team," Bryant said. "The beginning of the year nobody expected me to be in the NFL. Nobody expected me to kick for the New York Giants and nobody expected the New York Giants to be in the playoffs.

"But you know, you don't quit, you don't stop."

The Giants didn't quit; they didn't stop. Next stop for Big Blue – the playoffs.

"We said it a while ago, it's over when we say it's over and that is what this team showed," Head Coach Jim Fassel said. "There was a lot of character and a lot of fight out there. I told them it was going to take all 60 minutes; I didn't realize it was going to take more.

"I'm really proud of them because there were many times during the game when they could've quit."

Like after New York had not one, but two, touchdowns called back because of penalties. Or after any of Tiki Barber's three lost fumbles. Or after New York turned the ball over twice in the red zone. Or after Philly shredded the Giants defense on the game's first drive for an effortless touchdown. Or after New York's two lost challenges. Or even as Philadelphia's automatic Pro Bowl K David Akers lined up for the potentially game-winning field goal from 35 yards out with 1:12 to play.

Akers, who had missed only three of 33 field goals all season and only one from that range, was clearly still shaken after the game only minutes after his kick sailed wide right.

"I've got one word to say to you," he stammered. "I missed."

"At first I thought it was good," Fassel said. "The best people to tell you are the fans in the end zone. They started jumping up and down. You don't need to wait for the referees. I started jumping up and down too."

So did Barber.

For all his miscues, the Giants would not and could not have won this game without him. He finished with a career-high 203 yards and added 73 more on eight receptions.

"We needed him in the closing seconds and we got it," DE Michael Strahan said. "We ran for over 200 yards, so you can't complain about the way that Tiki played."

After Akers' kick sailed outside the right upright, Big Blue never really threatened in regulation and seemed content to decide this critical contest in the extra session.

The Eagles won the toss and were in pretty good shape until New York forced the Eagles' only turnover of the game – a Shaun Williams interception that gave New York possession at its own 37.

"It was just a tipped ball," Williams said. "I was there to make a play and (Brandon) Short had good coverage on his guy (Chad Lewis). It was a great play at a crucial time."

Then Barber took over. He single-handedly moved New York to the Eagles 23-yard line – gaining 29 yards on five carries – before handing the game and New York's season over to Bryant.

He had already botched one FG and barely got the game-tying PAT through, banging it in off the right upright. But after snapper Chris Bober's snap was a little low, holder Matt Allen was able to catch the ball on his hip and get it down. Bryant drilled it through and New York's celebration began.

"After I missed the first one, I just told myself to wipe the slate clean, start over and here we go," Bryant said. "That's what I had to do, just trust in myself."

Fassel also had no choice but to trust in Bryant, although he admitted it wasn't exactly easy.

"I wanted to get closer because of what the kicking had been like," he said. "I told Matt that he owed me one, but I wanted to get him a little closer to home base before I asked him to do it."

Bryant, the former pawnbroker, came through when the pressure was on.

"I caught a big chunk of grass," he said. "It felt good when I first hit it. It sounded good."

So, was the rookie kicker nervous?

It depends on whom you ask. Bryant said he had all the faith and confidence in the world; that he told his holder Allen to get ready to be on the cover of every New York newspaper Sunday morning.

"I knew it was going to come down to a kick," he said.

Allen said he was plenty sure of his buddy Bryant: "I knew he'd make it. He's been pretty automatic, especially under pressure."

However, Allen stated that he also needed to calm down and reassure Bryant, who was questioning himself the night before the game.

"He's never been in such a big game before and he was a little unsure," Allen said. "I was kind of surprised, to be honest, that I had to do that."

Regardless, the kick was good and New York's improbable march continues. It was on this same Giants Stadium field that Big Blue frittered away a late lead to Tennessee on Dec. 1, dropped to 6-6 on the year and basically assured themselves of no post-season action.

"This is one of the best feelings," WR Amani Toomer said. "They way people perceive this team from training camp all the way through, everyone was down on us when we were six and six, and for our team to believe the way we do in each other shows we're going to be a tough team to beat in the playoffs. For us to overcome those mistakes against a team that good, it's an incredible feat."

New York received yet another incredible performance from Pro Bowl TE Jeremy Shockey. Big Blue's super rookie caught 10 passes for 98 yards and the Giants' only TD, a 7-yarder midway through the fourth quarter.

"I said, ‘Man they cannot play with Shockey,' " Strahan said. "That is the first thing that came to my mind. Shockey is tough and hard to defend. If you put a safety on him, just throw the ball up and he makes it happen. He makes plays and is a rare offensive player. We are lucky that we are playing with him and not against him."

Brian Dawkins was the unfortunate Eagle who found himself in one-on-one coverage with Shockey near the Eagles end zone. Dawkins, whose vicious hit in the previous meeting put WR Ike Hilliard out for the season, was helpless against Shockey, to say the least.

"It was a great pass by Kerry," Shockey said. "You get a safety on you, and Dawkins isn't a regular safety because he can play corner. Kerry threw a great pass and lucky enough, I came down with it."

Then he threw a perfect strike of his own. The exuberant Shockey was so pumped up that he fired the ball high into the stands, a nice souvenir for some lucky Giants fan.

"I wasn't thinking," he said. "I wasn't and that's the point. I was excited and our offense was just waiting to break loose in this game."

That TD, which capped a 13-play, 80-yard drive, finally got New York even in a game that it had dominated.

The Giants rolled up 23 first downs to Philly's 9, out-gained the Birds 461-209 and controlled the time-of-possession 39:06-26:04.

Yet, after Philly stormed to its early TD, they led practically the whole game.

Philly didn't waste any time in grabbing an early hold of the contest, streaking 67 yards in only four plays on the game's first drive. After RB Duce Staley was stuffed for a loss of three and Eagles LG John Welbourn was flagged for a false start, the Eagles ripped off three big plays in a row.

Eagles TE Jeff Thomason caught a 20-yard toss, then Staley gained 35 more on a short pass on which FS Omar Stoutmire fell down. WR James Thrash capped the blitzkrieg by taking it the final 20 yards on a double-reverse.

That would be it for the Birds, as New York's defense clamped down in a big way.

"After that (first TD), our mindset didn't change at all," MLB Micheal Barrow said. "We were so focused on this game."

They needed to be.

Let us count all New York's missed opportunities. And they were still able to come away victorious against one of the league's best clubs.

First quarter – Collins' pass to Shockey in the end zone was tipped by the tight end and intercepted by Eagles SS Michael Lewis.

FB Charles Stackhouse was penalized for an illegal block, costing the Giants 16 yards. Three plays later, Collins dropped the shotgun snap and fell on the ball ending another empty possession.

Second quarter – Stackhouse's six-yard TD catch was called back because RT Mike Rosenthal was flagged for holding. Two plays later, Barber was stripped by Eagles LB Levon Kirkland and lost the ball. After a long battle, Eagles DL Brandon Whiting came up with the ball at the bottom of the pile.

In the final minute of the half, Fassel opted to punt instead of going for it on fourth-and-three from the Philly 37; yet another missed opportunity.

Third quarter – The Giants lost 33 yards from Delvin Joyce's kickoff return when LB Kevin Lewis was flagged for an illegal block above the waist.

After the Giants started to move, Barber fumbled again. Fassel challenged and lost.

Collins overthrew a wide-open Daryl Jones in the end zone. Then Bryant missed a 36-yarder wide right.

Fourth quarter – Toomer's 43-yard touchdown catch was nullified because of a holding call on LG Rich Seubert.

After New York had finally tied the score and was looking for its first lead late in the game, Barber fumbled for the third time.

Fortunately for the Giants, that would be the last break to go against them.

Akers missed, Bryant didn't and New York was headed to the playoffs for the second time in three seasons.

"I'm happy we were able to fight and hang in there under some tough circumstances, not only this game, but throughout the year," said QB Kerry Collins, who followed his perfect game in Indianapolis by completing 25-of-35 passes for 256 yards.

"We've really got something special here," Toomer said. "We're going to take it on the road and do it the hard way, but we've got as good a shot as anybody."

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