EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. -- For seven years, Jeff Hostetler roamed the New York Giants' sideline, quietly frustrated and fuming over his largely action-free role as Phil Simms' backup quarterback.
When he picked up a start, he would always win, compiling a 4-0 record as the No. 1 quarterback entering yesterday's NFC semifinal against the Chicago Bears at Giants Stadium.
An injury to Simms -- a sprained right foot suffered against Buffalo on Dec. 15 -- shuffled the former quarterback at West Virginia into the starting role once again, and he responded in his typical fashion, guiding the Giants to victories in their final two regular-season games.
But yesterday was different, and most everyone expected him to perform differently, as in fold. Hostetler's seemingly endless quest for a measure of appreciation appeared derailed once again.
This performance should fix that: 10-for-17 passing for 112 yards and two touchdowns, 43 yards rushing on six carries -- outgaining the Bears' team rushing total by 16 yards -- and a 3-yard scoring run with 10:41 left in the third quarter.
"I've always felt good about my abilities," said Hostetler, who will lead the Giants to the NFC championship game next Sunday against the San Francisco 49ers. "That's never been a question in my mind."
Nor was it one in the minds of his teammates.
"We knew Jeff could hang in there and do a fine job for us," defensive end Leonard Marshall said. "The guy has got fancy feet, and he's a real shifty quarterback. He can throw the ball deep well and do all sorts of things with the football, and he guided the offense very well today."
That vote of confidence certainly bolstered Hostetler's spirit and definitely calmed his nerves, jangled somewhat by a week of doomsday predictions about his ability to produce under real pressure.
Consultation this week with his father-in-law, West Virginia coach Don Nehlen, also helped. "He just told me to play my game and enjoy myself -- that I had the ability," Hostetler said.
Every pat on the back helped.
"I felt really good," he said. "There were some jitters, but around the locker room I could sense the guys had a lot of confidence in me that I could get the job done, and that really helped as far as settling my nerves.
"The first play out of the box was a pass, and that's a big confidence-booster for a quarterback, because I knew they had confidence in me. Especially when you're on your 5-yard line."
Actually, it was the 6-yard line, and the opening pass, intended for running back Ottis Anderson, fell incomplete. But, hey, who's counting?
Probably the Bears' defense, which twice allowed a scrambling Hostetler to convert on fourth-down runs.
Much of coach Bill Parcells' long preparation was centered upon using Hostetler's mobility.
"We threw some little things in there, like that, that made a difference," Parcells said.
But did the coach really think his backup had this in him? Did anyone?
"I had a lot of doubters. It was kind of getting old as the week went on . . . frustrating," Hostetler said. "But I felt like if I kept plugging away, something good would happen."