After banging his head against the New York Giants' defensive
wall for the third time in five months, vanquished Philadelphia
Eagles quarterback Donovan McNabb moved toward one of his
conquerors, defensive end Michael Strahan, on the chewed-up
Giants Stadium turf. There had already been contact between them,
initiated by Strahan--two sacks of McNabb and a forced fumble in a
playoff performance worthy of Lawrence Taylor--but now it was
McNabb who moved in for the kill shot: a killer hug. "I'm so
proud of you!" Strahan shouted into McNabb's ear as they
embraced, straining to be heard over Bruce Springsteen's Glory
Days on the P.A. "You took your team so far!"
"You're the man!" McNabb replied.
Both men were right. The 13-4 Giants advanced to the NFC
Championship Game against the Minnesota Vikings with a
jackhammering defensive effort in a 20-10 divisional playoff win
over Philadelphia, completing a three-game season sweep of the
Eagles--all by double digits. That smart, smothering defense is
the reason New York has a chance to return to the Super Bowl for
the first time in 10 years. On Sunday, when they face the
Vikings' Daunte Culpepper (a mobile quarterback in the McNabb
mold) and his strong offensive line (also in the Philly mold),
the Giants will have this booster shot of confidence going for
them: Each of their three meetings with Philadelphia was
essentially over by halftime. New York held 17-, 14- and 14-point
leads at intermission of the three games, including the 17-3 lead
on Sunday. Total Eagles possessions in those three first halves:
22. Eagles touchdowns in those three first halves: zero.
There's the small matter of Minnesota wideouts Randy Moss and
Cris Carter and running back Robert Smith being oh-so-slight
upgrades on Torrance Small, Charles Johnson and Chris Warren.
For now, though, why wreck a good fairy tale? Indeed, that's
what this story seems like. Ten years ago Bill Parcells, the
Giants' coach at the time, rode defense, special teams and an
offense he hoped wouldn't screw up to a 15-13 NFC Championship
Game win over the favored San Francisco 49ers and then to a
20-19 Super Bowl win over the favored Buffalo Bills. Last
weekend New York coach Jim Fassel rode defense (six sacks, 186
net Eagles yards), special teams (rookie Ron Dixon returned the
opening kickoff 97 yards for a touchdown) and an offense that
didn't screw up (36 minutes of possession time) to victory. The
Giants are underdogs against the Vikings and will be big
underdogs to the AFC winner if they reach Super Bowl XXXV. "This
is why sports are so cool," said New York running back Tiki
Barber, who gutted out an ugly 48-yard day (35 yards rushing, 13
receiving) with a broken left forearm. "Surprising things
happen. Who'd have thought Bill Buckner, a good defensive
player, would let the ball roll through his legs in the World
Series? Nobody expected us to be here, but we refuse to listen.
It can be a self-fulfilling prophecy. We're making our own
To be sure, this team's success is no fluke. Since Fassel's
rambling guarantee on Nov. 22 that the Giants would make the
playoffs they are 6-0, with the defense allowing an average of 12
points and 247 yards a game. The defensive coordinator,
bushy-haired 45-year-old John Fox, a coaching lifer (14 jobs in
22 years), cooks up a different brew each week with a unit that
is sending only one player, linebacker Jessie Armstead, to the
When Fox began to prepare a game plan for the Eagles, he saw two
major differences since the two teams last met, in October:
Warren, acquired on waivers in December, gave Philadelphia a
competent running back, and McNabb had matured significantly--had
become a maestro, in Fox's view, at knowing when to run and when
to pass. Fox wasn't worried about Warren, because the Giants' run
defense, first in the NFC, has been stifling this year. However,
he knew he had to keep McNabb in the pocket. Fox decided to mix
zone, man and zone-blitz coverages, willy-nilly, and when they
blitzed, it would be from the outside. On obvious third-down
passing situations, New York would employ either of two spies. (A
spy lingers near the line, mirroring the movement of the
quarterback, and chases him if he runs.) One, middle linebacker
Micheal Barrow, was predictable. The other was not. On the
Wednesday before the game, in a defensive team meeting to unveil
the game plan, Fox announced that Cornelius Griffin, a 300-pound
defensive tackle, would be the second spy. "Cool," Griffin said.
Risky move, but Fox knew two things: The Eagles would never
expect it, and Griffin, with five sacks and five passes batted
down this year, is one of the quickest big men he'd ever seen.
"He keeps telling us he's the fastest 300-pound man on the
planet," Fox says. "We put a lot on his plate, but we were
confident he could handle it."
On third-and-four on Philadelphia's first series, Griffin dropped
back from his defensive tackle slot to spy McNabb, who tried to
stutter-step his way through traffic. Griffin and defensive
tackle Keith Hamilton sandwiched him for a one-yard sack. Early
in the third quarter, on third-and-eight from the Eagles' 15,
McNabb, looking to scramble, moved up in the pocket, tried to
juke past Griffin and got leveled for another one-yard sack. "It
wasn't too hard," the unflappable Griffin said. "Nothing
outrageous. I mean, you stand in front of a guy and tackle him if
he tries to go by you."
But this is Donovan McNabb, Griffin was reminded--the new Steve
Young, the best runner-passer in the game. He shrugged and said,
"He's a great quarterback, but we confused him pretty good."
The Giants also had a terrific bull rush, led by Strahan, who
manhandled tackle Jon Runyan. Strahan is a very good two-way
275-pound defensive end who has improved his play against the run
while remaining a strong pass rusher. Runyan is a 325-pound
mountain of a run-blocker. Strahan thinks Runyan's a dirty player
who has tried to cut him at the knees. Runyan thinks Strahan's a
trash talker. Twice in the first half Strahan ran over Runyan and
sacked McNabb. "Strahan just killed Runyan!" Armstead crowed
after the game.
Strahan has become a better all-around player now that he's let
go of his bitterness over the constant media harping on the
four-year, $32 million deal he signed in 1999. Two injured elbows
made his '99 season a nightmare, exacerbating the pressure he
felt to live up to the contract. "Last year I let that be an
anchor," Strahan says. "Now I'm having a ball. I'm not worried
about sacks. I concentrate on being a complete defensive end.
People can brand me washed-up or not worth $32 million, and I can
honestly say I don't care. All I care about is getting a title
with my teammates."
Against the Vikings, New York will have to rattle Culpepper, as
it did McNabb. "If they're like everyone else we've played," said
cornerback Jason Sehorn, whose circus interception-touchdown run
clinched Sunday's win, "they won't think much of us."
They'd better. This defense, and the environment of a mid-January
game at Giants Stadium, make New York a formidable foe. Fassel
has become pals with actor and Giants fan Danny Aiello, and after
Sunday's game he met Aiello in the tunnel underneath the stadium.
"Forget Joe Namath's prediction," Aiello said, referring to
Broadway Joe's guarantee of a win in Super Bowl III. "That was
one game. You're working on six now! It's unbelievable."
But the Giants, and their hard-bitten faithful, are once again
starting to believe.
COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPH BY DAMIAN STROHMEYER MCNABBED Strahan's sack forced a McNabb fumble that Cedric Jones recovered.