C-H-O-K-E

Hollywood couldn't have written a more tragic ending for New York. Up 38-14 with less than 20 minutes to play, Big Blue was on easy street – on the fast track to a second-round playoff match in Tampa Bay.

But it all unraveled right before their eyes, with the New Yorkers helpless to stop it.

"We gave it to them," LDE Michael Strahan said. "We can't blame anybody but ourselves. It's a four-quarter game and we didn't play four quarters."

"This is about the worse loss I've ever felt in my entire life," Head Coach Jim Fassel said. "I am not going to get over this one for a while."

How could he?

With as big a lead as imaginable, New York managed to fritter it all away – on all fronts. The dominant, aggressive offense became stagnant and predictable. The smothering defense was thrashed repeatedly and the special teams, a thorn in Fassel's side all season, fell apart when New York needed them the most.

Yet after everything had fallen apart, the Giants still had a 41-yard field goal attempt with six seconds to play. Trailing by a mere point, all Matt Bryant had to do was nail a game-winner for the second consecutive week and New York would be victorious.

He never got the chance.

Signed only five days before the game, veteran long-snapper Trey Junkin had already blown one snap, which caused a 42-yard miss by Bryant midway through the fourth period. He blew another. Junkin's low snap forced holder Matt Allen to scramble and throw downfield to an ineligible lineman. And that was all she wrote. San Francisco had completed the second-biggest comeback in NFL post-season history.

"How many times can I say I [screwed] it up," Junkin said. "They were BS snaps, both of them. And it cost 53 guys the chance to go to the Super Bowl. Because this team is the best in the NFC.

"It's the fifth and sixth bad snaps of my career and the end of it too. If you can't count on me at the end of the game, that's it."

Most Giants were diplomatic and failed to blast Junkin, saying things like ‘it never should have come to that.'

RDE Kenny Holmes, who tried to play through a dislocated right shoulder, wasn't quite so understanding.

"I'd be lying to you if I said I thought it was OK," Holmes said. "It's not OK. It's not. Two bad snaps when that's all you have to do. That can't happen."

It did.

But Junkin was hardly the only reason New York's season came to a screeching halt.

Things couldn't have gone better for the Giants during the first half and into the third quarter. Tiki Barber's six-yard TD run all but salted the game away at 35-14.

Moments later, New York missed a golden opportunity to put a stake through San Francisco's heart. On second-and-goal from the 49ers 3-yard line, Giants QB Kerry Collins lofted a perfect pass to super-rookie TE Jeremy Shockey in the back right corner of the end zone. The usually sure-handed showboat dropped the ball – just flat-out missed it.

"If he makes that catch, it puts us up [four touchdowns]," Collins said. "But it shouldn't have come down to that."

"It was a little corner route and unfortunately it went right through my fingertips," Shockey explained. "Of course it makes a difference; every ball you drop makes a difference. But so did all the third-and-ones we didn't get."

After converting five-of-seven third downs in the first half, New York only moved the sticks once in six second-half opportunities.

So the Giants were forced to settle for three points from Bryant, the final time the snapper/holder/kicker trio would succeed.

Another New York special teams miscue aided the 49ers comeback. Following San Francisco's first eight-point trip, which sliced the lead to 38-22, the Giants were held three-and-out and had to punt. Allen's terrible 29-yard punt from deep in his own territory was bad enough. But then LB Dhani Jones was flagged for unnecessary roughness, tacking on 15 yards and setting San Fran up at the Giants 27-yard line. They scored three plays later.

Jones questioned the penalty, on which he was faulted for hitting 49ers return man Vinny Sutherland after he had signaled for a fair catch.

"I thought his arms were low," Jones said. "I thought he was waving it off, telling his teammates to get away from the ball. What can I say? I made a mistake."

Again, he wasn't alone.

New York's three fourth-quarter possessions resulted in a three-and-out and the two missed field goals.

"In the end, we should be hitting the snap holds and kicking field goals at that distance," Fassel said.

As the final seconds ticked off the clock, New York began to lose its composure, eerily reminiscent of the blown playoff lead to Minnesota that ended the 1997 season. At least this time, the Giants were fighting with the opponents.

Safety Shaun Williams was tossed from the game for two unsportsmanlike conduct penalties – one after San Fran's go-ahead TD, the other after the Niners' failed two-point try, during which he threw a punch.

"We had a complete loss of composure," Collins said. "That's going to help you lose ballgames."

For the Giants, it was fitting closure for an up-and-down season.

"This game was just like our season," Strahan said. "We looked as good as you can look on the football field and we looked as bad as you can look on the football field. I don't know what happened.

"It's a long off-season. We have to go home and think about it. That's what sucks. If that doesn't fuel your fire, nothing will."

"Nobody wants to sit at home in January now," Jones added. "We have to wait all the way until July to do anything about this."


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