NEW YORK -- Despite their numerous changes, one undeniable fact remained evident Monday night. The New York Giants haven't forgotten how to win.
A Super Bowl title didn't quell their hunger. A new coach and defensive coordinator didn't affect their preparation or execution. The Giants nipped the San Francisco 49ers, 16-14, on Matt Bahr's 35-yard field goal with five seconds left, much as they nipped the 49ers, 15-13, on Bahr's 42-yard field goal with no time left in last year's NFC championship game.
Last time, the defense muffled Joe Montana. This time, it muffled Steve Young. Last time, with no margin for error, Hostetler's offense started on its 43 and picked up 36 yards in 2:36. This time, with the ball on the Giants' 22, Hostetler directed a 13-play, 60-yard march that gobbled 4 minutes, 35 seconds and positioned Bahr between the hash marks for the kick that reminded everybody of how '91, the start of the Ray Handley Era, began as a carry-over from '90.
"Deja vu," said cornerback Mark Collins, who thought he was watching a replay of Jan. 28 from the sidelines.
The Giants rarely dominated games a year ago. They let their overpowering defense give the offense a chance to win. And that's what happened Monday night. Down by 14-13 with 4:40 left, the Giants embarked on a mistake-free march in which they converted all three third-down plays, used two of their three timeouts and lined up for Bahr's field goal on third down in case a bad snap prevented the kick from coming off.
"When we get close," Ottis Anderson said, "nine times out of 10 we'll pull it out because we know how to win. Players in key roles play big."
He meant Stephen Baker, who caught two passes for 22 yards and threw a terrific block on safety Johnnie Jackson to help clear David Meggett's path to a first down on third-and-five. He meant Mark Ingram, who caught an 11-yard pass at the Niners' 26 on third-and-10 with 47 seconds left and threw a devastating block on Charles Haley during Meggett's key run. And he meant Hostetler, who read the 49ers' one blown coverage and found Ingram after throwing incomplete passes on first and second down.
Hostetler, 8-0 as the Giants' starting quarterback, was 4-for-7 on the drive. He forced two of his incompletions, but kept his poise and hit the big passes. The only miscommunication on the drive occurred on third-and-one with 2:43 left, when Handley got angry at himself for failing to call the proper play with the right personnel on the field.
But the new coach kept cool, too. He called timeout, regained his thoughts, received input through his headset from quarterback coach Jim Fassel and called for Anderson to run between Bart Oates, who took out nose tackle Michael Carter, and Eric Moore for another vital first down.
The Meggett run was a new play that wide receivers coach George Sefcik brought from Cleveland. Since Meggett and Ingram didn't sign until Thursday, they didn't see it until four days before the game. Hostetler, out of the shotgun, pitches to Meggett, lined up to his right. Ingram, in motion from the right, cracks back on the left end (Charles Haley), freeing right tackle Doug Riesenberg to pull out as Meggett's lead blocker. Riesenberg eliminated cornerback Don Griffin and Carter with his block, giving Meggett the room he needed to burst for a critical first down.
The lackluster preseason didn't have any Giants worried, but it raised questions. A team never knows if success will span seasons, especially after an off-season of such change. But while the 49ers flew home muttering about a loss they had felt before, Lawrence Taylor pointed to the importance of starting 1-0.
"I think it let us know where we are," Taylor said. "And what to expect from ourselves."