Three's Company
An unlikely trio has the Giants in the middle of the NFC playoff
chase

When the year began, the three men who would ultimately give new
life to the Giants' playoff run were about as far from being
saviors as they could possibly be. One was in a rehab center.
Another was looking for work after having left that noted NFL
juggernaut in Philadelphia. The third was trying to convince
teams that an oft-injured, backup running back in college was
worth risking a draft pick on.

Today the three former misfits--quarterback Kerry Collins,
quarterbacks coach Sean Payton and running back Joe Montgomery,
respectively--are experiencing a harmonic convergence of sorts
in New York. On Sunday the underdog Giants went to Buffalo and
stunned the Bills 19-17, seven days after the offense had
enjoyed a coming-out party in a 41-28 romp over the Jets.
Collins, with a quarterback rating of 93.5 in the two big
victories, looked like the confident, bazooka-armed leader the
Panthers had selected with the fifth pick in the 1995 draft. The
baby-faced Payton established himself as a play-caller with a
good feel for his weapons; the Giants piled up 490 yards against
the Jets, another 334 against the Bills. Montgomery, with 188
total rushing yards in the two games, finally showed why the
Giants made him a second-round draft choice last April.

"Oh, we're a playoff team," wideout Amani Toomer said in the
locker room on Sunday. "Everyone in this room knows it. I just
hope we've got time to show the rest of the league."

Time isn't the problem; the schedule is. The Giants probably
have to win at least two of their remaining three games--at St.
Louis (11-2), home against Minnesota (7-6) and at Dallas
(7-6)--to make the playoffs in the watered-down NFC. But
considering where they were a couple of weeks ago, at 5-6 after
following a 5-3 start with three straight losses, it's amazing
the Giants are even talking about the playoffs.

Give Montgomery a lot of credit for the turnaround. After
suffering a knee injury in his sophomore year at Ohio State that
was so serious a doctor told him his career was over, Montgomery
worked himself back into football shape. As a senior in '98 he
had 118 carries for 766 yards. Though he's hardly been Joe
Durable since arriving at training camp (since July he's had two
hamstring injuries and a broken foot), Montgomery proved to be a
workhorse when coach Jim Fassel gave him his first start. It
came against the Jets, and Mongomery carried 38 times for 111
yards and a touchdown. "Coach Fassel asked me if I was ready to
carry the ball all day," the 5'10", 228-pound Montgomery said.
"He gave it to me 38 times and said, 'What's the big deal? The
ball's not heavy.' I love how he showed so much faith in me."

Give Payton a lot of credit. Because Fassel left the team to
attend his mother's funeral in California early in the week
leading up to the Jets game, he turned the play calling over to
Payton. It was a bold move, considering that the 35-year-old
Payton had bounced around the college ranks from 1988 through
'96 and had spent the last two years as the quarterbacks coach
in Philly.

The Giants' offense had been stuck in quicksand all season, but
on the second series against the Jets, Payton called a double
reverse that went for 27 yards. The Giants scored 27 first-half
points, their highest scoring half since 1993, and Collins and
Toomer hooked up on touchdown passes of 61, 9 and 80 yards.
"There's an ebb and flow to the game I'm starting to feel,"
Payton said after Sunday's game.

The play calling could be a touchy subject with Fassel because
his assistant is calling a better game than he did. But Fassel
has handled it well. "I really like his poise," Fassel says of
Payton. In fact, in the third quarter on Sunday, when Payton was
getting bombarded with suggestions by players and coaches,
Fassel got in the middle, pointed to Payton and said, "Hey! You
call the game!"

But give most of the credit to Collins. A year ago he was
fighting his reputation as a quitter; Carolina cut him in
October 1998 after coach Dom Capers said Collins had asked out
of the starting lineup. Then Collins struggled through a short
stay in New Orleans, impressing no one as a woeful 49% passer
who threw 10 interceptions and only four touchdown passes.

In an interview with SI in November '98, Collins appeared
nervous, shifty and devoid of confidence, his eyes darting
around the room. He had shied from admitting that he had an
alcohol problem. Then last January he entered the Menninger
Clinic in Topeka, Kans., where he spent seven weeks. He says he
hasn't had a drink since his rehab began. Last February the
Giants signed him to a four-year, $16.9 million contract, which
included a $5 million signing bonus. Many around the league
thought New York was crazy to throw that kind of money at a free
agent who wasn't attracting much interest.

Thanks to hands-on tutoring by Fassel, Collins has stopped
throwing off his back foot. His drop-back, once herky-jerky and
inconsistent, is rock steady. He has learned when to throw the
ball away instead of trying to make a heroic--and stupid--throw.
When Payton asked him late in Sunday's game what play he wanted
to run, Collins shrugged. "Just call one," the quarterback said.
"We'll make it work." He completed 23 of 44 attempts for 240
yards, with one touchdown and one interception. He threw the
ball confidently, on a line, all afternoon. "He is a work in
progress," Fassel said, "but I love what I see."

After the win in chilly Buffalo, Collins exuded a calm that his
old teammates in Carolina and New Orleans wouldn't have
recognized. "The bottom line," Collins said, eyes focused on his
questioner, "is I'm a much healthier person, a much happier
person. The most important thing in the world to me now is being
a good quarterback."

Heisman Winner Ron Dayne
Scouts Worried He'll Get Beat Up

NFL scouts are high on Ron Dayne, the Heisman Trophy-winning
running back from Wisconsin, and they consider him a lock to be
a first-round pick in next April's draft. They like that during
his four years with the Badgers he ran the ball 1,115 times--for
a Division I-A record 6,397 yards--without sustaining a major
injury. But after watching the 252-pound Dayne in a game this
fall, a scout for one NFC team wrote, "Slow hitting the hole.
Body type concerns me. Wonder if he's a higher-level Ironhead
Heyward."

A player who moves like Dayne is going to get hit an awful lot,
and some big backs, such as Heyward, the former 265-pound Pitt
All-America who struggled with his weight, have had trouble
staying healthy. "If you can't avoid people in the NFL," says
Charlie Armey, the Rams' vice president of player personnel,
"you end up taking a tremendous pounding, like Ricky Williams in
New Orleans, and your body doesn't hold up. Dayne runs in the
power alleys between the tackles, and in the NFL those alleys
close quicker. If you can't avoid people, your shoulders get
knocked down, you get high ankle sprains, you get bruised
elbows, and you can't stay on the field. That's the concern with
Dayne."

Look for Virginia's Thomas Jones, eighth in the Heisman voting,
to be the first running back drafted. Dayne, Jamal Lewis of
Tennessee or Shaun Alexander of Alabama should go next.

Complacency in Seattle
Seahawks Fight For Playoff Lives

When Seahawks wideout Derrick Mayes sat down for Thanksgiving
dinner last month, he had a lot to be grateful for. Reunited
with Seattle boss Mike Holmgren thanks to an August trade,
Mayes, a former backup in Green Bay, was putting together a Pro
Bowl-caliber season for an 8-2 team that had a three-game lead
in the AFC West.

Looking back, Mayes says, he and his teammates may have gotten a
little fat. They've since dropped three straight games and are
tied for the division lead with the Chiefs. After a 19-16 loss
to the Chargers at the Kingdome on Sunday, Seattle's locker room
was filled with more confusion and unrest than a World Trade
Organization protest.

Later, as he sat at a restaurant in nearby Kirkland, Mayes
provided his take on the team's slide: "When you have a lot of
guys who aren't used to winning, it's very easy to become
complacent at the first sign of success. A lot of people thought
they were pretty cool at 8-2."

Lack of fire wasn't the Seahawks' problem against the Chargers;
rather, it was lack of focus. There were brutal mistakes at
critical times--most notably running back Ricky Watters's
fumble, which led to John Carney's game-winning field goal with
3:19 left. (Todd Peterson's 38-yard attempt to tie it with 1:15
to go bounced off the left upright.) "We don't have time to work
through this gradually," said defensive back Merton Hanks, who
won a Super Bowl with the 49ers. "In this era of free agency we
can't count on always being in this position. Mike's been
admonishing people to seize the moment, but now it's time for
some of the players who've won before to step up and say
something." --Michael Silver

Dispatches
Roaf Wants Out Of New Orleans

After Saints owner Tom Benson threatened an overhaul of his
struggling team last week, one New Orleans assistant coach
called the club "the Peyton Place of the NFL." Even Ricky
Williams, coach Mike Ditka's biggest fan, said whatever the
Saints are doing "isn't working." But Ditka, who in three
seasons is 14-31, and Bill Kuharich, the club's president and
general manager, aren't the only ones who might be on their way
out. Tackle Willie Roaf, 29, the Saints' most respected veteran,
has told friends he will repeat the request he made at midseason
to be traded or released the day after the season--regardless of
whatever changes Benson makes....

The 2000 crop of free-agent wide receivers will be weak, unless
the Raiders' Tim Brown exercises a clause in his contract that
would void the last four years of the deal. Brown is not unhappy
in Oakland, but he would be thrilled to play for his hometown
Cowboys. That's a possibility if Deion Sanders returns to
baseball, which would free up money for Dallas to sign a
high-priced player....

When linebacker-defensive end Jevon Kearse worked out for pro
scouts before last spring's draft, his 10-yard time (1.52
seconds) in the 40, which measures the burst especially valuable
to receivers and pass rushers, was the fastest of any player
scouts could remember. Thus it was odd that Kearse was still
available when the Titans picked 16th in the first round. Lining
up at defensive end, Kearse has forced nine fumbles, and he's
tied for fourth in the league in sacks with 11 1/2--just one shy
of the rookie sack record shared by Leslie O'Neal and Simeon
Rice....

Lions coach Bobby Ross on the difference in his relationship
with his players from last season, when Detroit finished 5-11:
"After last season I thought I had removed myself from the human
side of things, the everyday contact with players. I went back
to that this year. I'm not going to let a bad situation brew."...

Here's why Chargers players like first-year coach Mike Riley: In
the midst of a four-game offensive drought in early November,
during which San Diego scored a total of 29 points, an assistant
suggested San Diego try the no-huddle. Riley agreed. The
Chargers have since scored 20, 27, 23 and 19 points.

Send your pro football questions for Peter King's mailbag and
read more from Paul Zimmerman at cnnsi.com/football.

COLOR PHOTO: DAMIAN STROHMEYER Montgomery has shown signs of being the workhorse back that the Giants were searching for. COLOR PHOTO: JOHN BIEVER Miller says he was thrown for a loss after he took a dietary supplement. COLOR PHOTO: PETER READ MILLER Mayes thinks the Seahawks got comfortable after their 8-2 start.

the buzz

1. Qadry Comes Through
He has played for four teams. He was a minimum-salary signee by
the Ravens last April, a wideout without an NFL reception since
1996. But on Sunday in Pittsburgh, Qadry Ismail had one of the
most spectacular quarters an NFL receiver has ever had: four
catches, 210 yards, three touchdowns--despite taking a vicious
hit that bruised his ribs on the first score. He finished with
six catches for 258 yards in a 31-24 Baltimore win.

2. Underrated Player of the Year
Steve Beuerlein is second in the league in passing yards
(3,483), has completed 60% of his passes for a 6-7 team and has
thrown 10 more touchdown passes (25) than interceptions. On
Sunday against the Packers at Lambeau Field he passed for 373
yards and three touchdowns, then ran five yards on a quarterback
draw for the winning points as time expired. So why do the
Panthers keep thinking they need a quarterback?

3. He Smells a Super Bowl
Motivated by reports that the defense was the team's weak link,
Colts linebacker Cornelius Bennett had 15 tackles in a 20-15
victory over the Patriots. The win, Indianapolis's ninth
straight, clinched a playoff berth and gave the Colts (11-2) a
three-game lead in the AFC East. The franchise is within reach
of its first division title since 1987 and a first-round bye, as
Bennett, the former Bills and Falcons standout, sets his sights
on his sixth Super Bowl appearance in the '90s.

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)