Soon after the expansion Carolina Panthers made Penn State
quarterback Kerry Collins the first draft pick in club history,
in 1995, the franchise cornerstone skipped the last day of his
first minicamp. Driving aimlessly on a Charlotte-area highway,
Collins made a cell-phone call to coach Dom Capers and told him,
"Coach, I can't take all the pressure on me."
On Jan. 9, five days before Collins would quarterback the New
York Giants in the NFC Championship Game against the Minnesota
Vikings, the fax machine in his suburban New Jersey home spit out
five pages of pressure: the game plan. Offensive coordinator Sean
Payton so loved the matchup of Collins against the Vikings' weak
secondary and lousy pass rush that he put the game on his
quarterback's shoulders. And Kerry Collins laughed. Now he
relished the faith his coaches had in him and the pressure they
had piled on. The recovering alcoholic and formerly immature
player had come a long way in his struggle to be a good NFL
quarterback and a better person. Scanning the game plan, he said,
"Good, we're going to attack."
New York attacked all right--on both sides of the ball. In their
76-year history the Giants had played 33 postseason games before
Sunday's, but none was as stunning and decisive as this one, a
41-0 humbling of the strutting NFC Central champion Vikings at
Giants Stadium. The victory sent 14-4 New York into Super Bowl
XXXV against the 15-4 Baltimore Ravens on Jan. 28 in Tampa. In
command from the first snap, Collins set a Giants playoff record
for passing yardage (338) by halftime and finished with the best
day of his six-year career: 28 completions in 39 attempts for 381
yards and five touchdowns (with two interceptions)--and he didn't
even play in the last quarter. New York had been looking for its
quarterback of the future since Phil Simms left before the 1994
season, and the search is finally over.
Two hours after Sunday's triumph, in a cleared-out locker room,
Collins, still in uniform, quietly reveled in his accomplishment.
"I have more of a sense of humility than exultation," he said. "I
have to, because I've gotten into trouble when I've looked for
something more in a moment like this. What you're seeing is me
being me, or as close to the real me as I've ever been."
Amazingly, the Giants may have been even more impressive on
defense than on offense, handing the Vikings their first shutout
in coach Dennis Green's nine-year, 156-game tenure. Defensive
coordinator John Fox's squad held Minnesota's big three--NFC
rushing champ Robert Smith and Pro Bowl wideouts Randy Moss and
Cris Carter--to a meaningless total of 84 yards. The loss so
embarrassed Moss (two catches, 18 yards, a disengaged participant
by halftime) that he talked after the game as if he wanted out.
"I'm going to win a Super Bowl one day," said Moss, who next fall
will enter the final year of his contract. "I doubt it will be in
"Forty-one donut?" he added. "Who can believe that?"
"Forty-one nothing?" said Fox. "Not in my wildest dreams did I
No one did. But such an NFC Championship Game upset was in
keeping with the spirit of this weird season, as was the Giants'
surge after a decade of mediocrity. Entering 2000 they were an
inglorious 71-75-1 since winning Super Bowl XXV following the
1990 season. An air of skepticism still enveloped New York going
into Sunday's game; though they had three wins over Philadelphia,
the Giants had bombed in big tests against Tennessee, St. Louis
and Detroit. "The Giants are the weakest Number 1 seed in NFL
playoff history!" New York sports talk radio host Chris Russo
bellowed on WFAN last week.
In an unguarded moment before dawn last Thursday, New York coach
Jim Fassel, an incurable optimist, opened his middle desk drawer
and pulled out a Giants pocket schedule. "I've never shown
anybody this," he said. "After we lost at Washington in Week 4
[his team's first defeat after three victories], I came in the
next day and tried to figure out what games we'd need to win to
make the playoffs."
He held out the card. He had written a W next to eight of the
remaining games; only the spaces next to Tennessee, St. Louis,
Washington again and Jacksonville were blank. In Week 5 the
Norman Vincent Peale of NFL coaches was projecting his team to go
11-5; the Giants would finish the regular season 12-4. "See?"
Fassel said. "That's the kind of year it's been. Like I tell the
team all the time: The best team doesn't always win. The team
that plays the best wins. As the year has gone on, we've played
the best a whole lot."
Fassel must have had a premonition of what was coming on Sunday.
Or maybe he was simply confident in what his coaches were doing
in the adjacent rooms, preparing for Minnesota. "When we looked
at the tape, we saw how bad the Vikings' corners were," one
offensive player said after the game. "Nobody was surprised when
Sean put the game in Kerry's hands."
In a meeting the night before each game, Payton distributes the
script for the first 15 plays to all the offensive players.
Before he did so last Saturday night, he said, "The Air Force has
got to come up big and drop some bombs early." For only the
second time in the 1 1/2 years he has been calling plays, Payton
had 10 passes on the opening script.
The first five plays were executed perfectly: Collins pass to an
open Amani Toomer on a cross, in stride, for 16 yards; Collins
pass up the left sideline to Toomer, for 10 more; Tiki Barber run
over right tackle for two; Collins pass to an open Ike Hilliard,
streaking up the left seam for a 46-yard touchdown; after fumble
recovery on the ensuing kickoff, Collins pass to fullback Greg
Comella, circling out of the backfield past slipping linebacker
Dwayne Rudd, for a falling 18-yard touchdown catch. Giants 14-0
after 133 seconds of play. "KER-ry! KER-ry!" chanted the packed
Now it was up to the defense, a confident bunch with a bit of a
swagger, thanks to the influence of former University of Miami
linebackers Jessie Armstead and Micheal Barrow. Well aware of the
chip on his unit's shoulder, Fox walked into the defensive
meeting room four days before the game and said, "I love our
matchups in this game. We can shut these guys out." Armstead
figured Fox was nuts. You've got to give the Vikings 17 points,
On Sunday the Giants blitzed on only 12 of 41 Vikings snaps,
preferring to rush their front four and have the linebackers help
the secondary cover Moss and Carter. Smart move. Twice in the
second quarter, with the game still within Minnesota's reach,
defensive end Michael Strahan bull-rushed over Vikings tackle
Korey Stringer and got to quarterback Daunte Culpepper in time to
knock a potential strike to Moss off target. On the first of
those, Moss was running free over the middle and probably would
have had a momentum-swinging touchdown.
Stopping Moss had been the Giants' focus all week. When Strahan
returned to Giants Stadium at around 6:30 last Friday night,
following a press conference in New York City, he was shocked to
see one car left in the parking lot--cornerback Jason Sehorn's.
Not usually the player who turns out the lights, Sehorn was
finishing his 17th Minnesota offensive game tape, with end zone
and sideline view. "I watched every play Randy Moss ran all
year," Sehorn said after Sunday's game. "I figured I'd have six
months to dwell on it if we lost, and I didn't want to leave
anything to chance."
Fox glued Sehorn to Moss, giving him safety help about 80% of
the time, and Moss couldn't shake free. Culpepper, confused by
the hybrid coverages he was seeing, never got into a passing
rhythm. The Giants frustrated Culpepper the same way they'd
flummoxed another mobile passer, Eagles phenom Donovan McNabb, in
the divisional playoff the previous week. Over eight quarters,
New York held McNabb and Culpepper to 48% passing, 10 points and
one touchdown pass, making four interceptions.
Meanwhile, the Giants' offense poured it on in the second
quarter, with Collins's touchdown strikes to Joe Jurevicius and
to Hilliard again, plus two field goals by Brad Daluiso. By
halftime it was 34-0, and New York had a 386-45 advantage in
total yards. This wasn't Giants-Vikings; it was Florida
State-Western Illinois. The job wasn't quite complete, however.
Late in the third quarter, after another Giants touchdown,
Armstead saw a couple of teammates smiling on the sideline.
Normally, you're allowed to smile when it's 41-0. Not today. Not
in Armstead's house. "No smiling!" he ordered. "We ain't done
nothin'!" Why? "Because," Armstead said later, "we wanted that
goose egg. We deserved it. Coach Fox deserved it."
Dominant defense, Collins's resurgence--that brings us to the
final piece of the Giants' Super Bowl puzzle: chemistry. There's
no question that a better mix of players was a key to this team's
success. After New York lost six of its last eight games in 1999,
Fassel knew he had too many selfish players. He went to general
manager Ernie Accorsi early in the off-season and said, "No
matter who we sign, I want them to be good people first." Accorsi
signed a troop of Eagle Scouts--left tackle Lomas Brown, left
guard Glenn Parker and center Dusty Ziegler on offense, Barrow
and cornerback Dave Thomas on defense--who still had some good
football left in them.
"One of the turning points of our season came after we beat
Atlanta 13-6 in October," Strahan said last Saturday at his
Montclair, N.J., home. "The offense hadn't been clicking, and
after the game, Glenn Parker stood up and said, 'Defense, thank
you. You saved us. Offense, we were garbage today. We've got to
pull our weight.' No excuses. The offense looked the defense in
the eye and said they'd get it right." The offense got it right,
scoring three or more touchdowns in eight of the 12 games since.
In the end, it was Collins who made the difference. Only once in
Giants history--Simms's magical 22-for-25 MVP performance in Super
Bowl XXI--has a quarterback had a day on the big stage that
rivaled Collins's on Sunday. In hindsight we shouldn't have been
surprised that Collins was capable of such a performance: His
83.1 passer rating this season surpassed any that Simms produced
until his eighth NFL season, and Simms didn't have a completion
percentage higher than Collins's 58.8% until his 11th year. "The
next couple of years," Fassel said after the game, "I think Kerry
will play as well as any quarterback in the league."
For now, Collins knows his dubious past--his alleged use of racial
slurs with Carolina teammates; the day he asked out of the
Panthers lineup because, he said, his heart wasn't in it anymore;
his ostentatiously smoking a cigar after being sprung following a
DWI arrest in 1998; his flunked trial with the Saints; his stint
in alcohol rehab before signing with the Giants in 1999--will fill
the airwaves in the two weeks leading up to the Super Bowl. "I've
told the story for two years," he said wearily on Sunday night,
"and it gets to be pretty taxing. But I will do what I have to
Collins paused. He's not usually given to reflection, but at that
moment he had to sit in wonderment at this loony season and this
historic day. "There've been some crazy times in my life," he
said, allowing himself a wan smile. "Good, bad, bizarre. This
part of the story is just as crazy."
defense than on offense.