Proving something, Giants miss something

January 03, 1994|By JOHN EISENBERG

EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. -- All season long, they were the contender that wasn't going to win in the end. The contender that was benefiting from an easy schedule. The contender that was soft on the inside.

All season long, the New York Giants were regarded by the cognoscenti as just the latest miracle of parity. They weren't backed by serious football tender. Give them the Rams, the Bucs, the backsliding Redskins -- no problem. But the Cowboys? The mutha-load Cowboys? Forget it.

So, how were they supposed to react yesterday when they proved everything and nothing? When their fondest hopes and worst wishes collided? When a final Cowboys field goal sliced through the chilly air in overtime -- overtime! -- and the largest crowd in franchise history fell silent?

"I guess you could say we proved something," center Bart Oates said, "but right now I'm thinking about losing a big game we could have won."

How great. And awful.

"We wore them down, had them on the run, which was a great feeling," guard William Roberts said, "but it's a loss that really stings."

How wonderful. And miserable.

"Coach," came a voice from the back of the pack of reporters in the interview room, "can you take any consolation at all . . ."

Dan Reeves was shaking his head even before the question was finished. "No way," the Giants head coach said sharply. But then he stopped and reconsidered: "Well, yeah, I'm happy we've got the kind of guys that can go out and do this. I'm very proud to be a part of it . . ."

But?

". . . but it hurts like hell to lose."

How terrific. And terrible.

The game was the Super Bowl for the Giants, nothing less than that. At stake was a division title, a first-round bye in the playoffs, the home-field advantage throughout the conference playoffs. The Giants needed it more. The Cowboys, as football's top dogs, had the stuff to go on the road and win in January. The Giants didn't.

In the first half, all preconceived notions were justified. The Cowboys held the ball for more than 22 minutes and led 13-0. Emmitt Smith gained almost twice as many yards as the Giants. The big crowd had no reason to cheer. Their contenders did indeed look soft.

Then came the second half. "No speeches, no adjustments, there's no time for anything like that," Reeves said. "We just started playing better."

Suddenly, Rodney Hampton was dipping and darting through holes, Phil Simms was filling in the gaps with short passes and the Giants were moving the ball. Suddenly, Emmitt Smith had a (( sore shoulder and the Cowboys were lifeless. Suddenly, the Giants' soft insides were anything but.

Down three points with 5:35 to play, they started a drive on their 17 and kept picking up first downs and squeezing the clock, Hampton, Hampton, Hampton, the crowd standing and roaring in the gathering darkness, the drive passing the 50, 40, 30, 20 . . .

"I really thought we were going to win," linebacker Michael Brooks said.

Who didn't? Yes. Here was a New York story that was going to last. The year when the Giants weren't supposed to win, and did.

Ah, but the ending was all wrong. The Cowboys stopped the last drive on a desperate third-and-two and the Giants had to kick a field goal to force overtime. Then, after the Giants' first overtime possessionwas undermined by an illegal block -- "a wrong call," said center Brian Williams -- the Cowboys efficiently drove into position for the winning field goal.

What to think?

"To me, the teams looked pretty evenly matched," Oates said. "They're a good team, a great team. We're pretty good, too. I don't think the players felt we needed to prove that, but if we did, this game did."

They were one break away from whacking the NFL's stars completely out of alignment. Forcing the Cowboys to go on the road to defend their Super Bowl title. Forcing all challengers to come to New York. But now they need to go to Dallas and San Francisco to get the Supe, a daunting task.

How depressing. And inspiring.

"This team hasn't been in the playoffs for a few years, so it's a positive to get back," linebacker Carlton Bailey said. "A lot of people said we'd finish in last place. We finished second."

And almost first.

"Yeah, almost," he said.

Reeves had said beforehand that the game would measure how far his team had come, how well they matched up with the best. "So," someone asked at the end of the day, "how'd you match up?"

Reeves paused. How to answer on such a weird emotional day?

"Well," he finally said, "we got beat."

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