Giant leap ambushes Vikings, 41-0

`Worst' top seed ever goes from underdog to Super Bowl berth

`We're the American Dream'

Collins throws for 5 TDs

`embarrassed' Culpepper is limited to 78 yards

Ravens Extra

January 15, 2001|By Joe Strauss | Joe Strauss,SUN STAFF

EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. - The New York Giants' 41-0 pounding of the faster, glitzier and more glib Minnesota Vikings was so thorough, so indisputable and so delicious to the 79,310 who crammed inside Giants Stadium, it could make an old man dance.

Only moments after the Giants had secured their first NFC championship since the 1990 season, their spry, 84-year-old owner grabbed a microphone to share a last laugh with the raucous record crowd.

"Remember, this was the Giant team referred to as the worst team ever to win home-field advantage in the National Football League. And today we became the worst team ever to win the NFC championship," said Wellington Mara, cradling the George S. Halas Trophy as a still-filled stadium seconded his jab. "And in two weeks, we're going to try to become the worst team ever to win the Super Bowl."

How "bad" were Mara's Giants? They led 14-0 before rookie Vikings quarterback Daunte Culpepper took the first snap. Rejuvenated Giants quarterback Kerry Collins countered with an NFC championship-game-record 381 yards and five touchdowns. And their defense held the Vikings' high-wire offense to 248 yards below its average. At halftime, Collins had thrown for more touchdowns (four) than the Vikings had first downs (three).

"People thought this game was going to be too big for us," shouted Giants coach Jim Fassel. "But it wasn't going to be too big for us at all."

Despite earning home-field advantage throughout the playoffs, the 14-4 NFC East champions entered the game as underdogs against a team with a lesser record, which had not played outdoors since Thanksgiving. But rather than spend last week bemoaning a lack of respect, the Giants' coaching staff constructed a game plan so seamless that the Vikings' secondary often appeared to be swimming upstream while the NFC's third-most-prolific offense managed just 45 total yards in the first half.

The Giants head to Tampa, Fla., riding a seven-game winning streak. Their domination of the NFC Central champions represented the Vikings' first shutout since Sept. 22, 1991.

For the second time in three years, Minnesota failed to verify its role as the favorite in the conference championship. But unlike a January 1999 loss during which they squandered a 20-7 lead against the Atlanta Falcons, the Vikings and coach Dennis Green arrived yesterday seemingly unprepared.

"It was embarrassing. That's the word for it," Culpepper said.

The Vikings' All-Pro receiving tandem of Randy Moss and Cris Carter combined for five catches and only 42 yards against the tall Giants secondary. Carter had one catch stripped from his hands for an interception and didn't have a first-half reception; Moss didn't make a catch in the second half.

Able to parlay a four-man front into a steady pass rush without assistance from blitzing linebackers, the Giants harried Culpepper into three interceptions, four sacks and only 78 passing yards. (Collins threw for 100 yards on his team's first five snaps.) Culpepper set the tone for the second half when he fumbled away his first snap.

Vikings owner Red McCombs watched in horror from a luxury box. He left shaken and promised only that no hard decisions would be made about the club "in the emotional state we're in now."

"I don't even know what to say," McCombs said. "Some days it rains and some days it floods. Today, we got a flood."

The deluge started immediately, when the Giants drove 74 yards in four plays on their opening drive, ending with Collins' 46-yard throw to Ike Hilliard. The Collins-Hilliard connection worked 10 times for 155 yards and two scores.

On the ensuing kickoff, rookie return man Troy Walters allowed the short kick to fall between him and Moe Williams. The two collided trying to cradle the side-spinning ball. The Giants' Lyle West recovered, and, on the next play, Collins connected with fullback Greg Comella for an 18-yard touchdown.

A week after scoring on the opening kickoff against the Philadelphia Eagles, the Giants led 14-0 without their defense having taken the field.

"We did to them what they usually do to other teams. I really believe that we surprised them, and jumping out to a 14-0 lead took the wind out of their sails," said Giants center Dusty Zeigler.

In the second quarter, the Giants scored on all four of their possessions. With its line unable to generate a pass rush against Collins, the porous Vikings secondary was fully exposed.

"When you play a team that likes to sit back and watch and play a lot of zone coverage, if you have the time to go out and run your routes ... there's no limit to what could happen," Hilliard said.

Collins, who had steered the Carolina Panthers to the NFC championship game in January 1997, completed his return from the NFL discard pile with a career game, finished the game 28-for-39. The Giants completed their performance with the second-team offense running out the final 12:53 with a 19-play, 54-yard drive against the Vikings' no mas defense.

Fassel had given an emotional speech to his team Saturday night. He emphasized his players' strengths, cohesiveness and refusal to give in to those who have dismissed it as overachievers.

"I told this team last night ... there's one team in this league that already calls itself America's Team," said Fassel, referring to the Giants' down-and-out division rivals, the Dallas Cowboys. "But you know what? We're living the American Dream. We're the American Dream.

"In this country or playing in this league, if you've got a belief and you've got determination and teamwork, there isn't anything you can't accomplish. And we have some talent."

It was Fassel who brashly guaranteed a playoff berth with his team 7-4. And his players have responded with equal confidence.

"We proved everybody wrong," said Giants defensive end Michael Strahan. "We showed this is a team sport."

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