One Up, One Down


Giants Crap Out

To a man, the New York Giants downplayed the role of luck in their success this season after they sneaked into the NFL playoffs at the last second. Perhaps they didn’t want to mess with a good thing. But you don’t control luck, and it finally ran out.

First, Atlanta pounded a clearly overrated Green Bay team Saturday night. Then Big Blue suffered an epic implosion in the second half of their game against the 49ers the next day. Two monumental flaws—poor special teams play and porous late-game defense—reared their ugly heads for the first time in weeks and led to San Fran’s stunning come-from-behind 39-38 win.

We all know how the Giants qualified for the post-season in the first place, winning 10-7 in OT on a Matt Bryant field goal against Philadelphia 10 days ago. But they wouldn’t have had the chance had normally reliable Eagle kicker David Akers not missed a makable field goal near the end of regulation. And the Giants also had help from conference rivals New Orleans and Atlanta—the Saints lost their final two to inferior opponents (Cincinnati and Carolina, a combined 9-23 for the season), and the Falcons blew a late-game lead in the final week of the season. The Falcon loss in that game earned the Giants a first-round trip to balmy San Francisco instead of the “frozen tundra” of Lambeau Field, where the hometown Packers had been undefeated in post-season play.

“Well, you have to get lucky sometimes,” QB Kerry Collins told us, rather defensively, 10 days ago. “But we are in the playoffs. That’s all that matters.”

And now they’re out, especially punter Matt Allen, who most assuredly finished his short stint as a Giant with three short kicks at inopportune moments—his season in microcosm. Much ado has been made about Bryant’s two missed field goals in the fourth quarter—both the result of bad snaps to holder Matt Allen by supposed long-snap specialist Trey Junkin, signed last week to replace injured Dan O’Leary. Allen, maybe just to his misfortune, also had his hand in this mess.

But New York’s special-teams nadir actually occurred near the end of the third quarter. After Allen launched a short kick from his own 10, cover man Dhani Jones failed to see 49er returner Vinny Sutherland signal for a fair catch at the Giants’ 42. Jones ran into Sutherland, and the resulting 15-yard unsportsmanlike conduct penalty positioned San Francisco for a TD in the comeback and exposed a kick-coverage unit that had been deceptively solid in recent weeks.

Speaking of exposed, that’s exactly what soon-to-be-ex-Giant cornerback Jason Sehorn was against San Francisco receivers Terrell Owens and Tai Streets in the fourth quarter on Sunday. Generally a factor in important games during his Big Blue career, Sehorn once again was, but in the wrong way. It looked as if the Giants were going to try to bluff the Niners by leaving Sehorn, who’s been at least a step slow all season, one-on-one with either Owens or Streets on some plays. Sehorn made a key interception in the first half. In the end, though, Owens and Streets combined for four catches, 54 yards, and a TD in the final stanza alone.

“Tragic” was how coach Jim Fassel described the loss after the game. But he also admitted that his team was undone in areas he said he had “worried about since we started the season”—including special teams and late-game defense. That and the always fickle factor of luck. —Brian P. Dunleavy

A Shutout? Shut Up!

The second-largest shutout in league history? And the New York Jets weren’t the ones being whitewashed? What in the name of Rich Kotite is going on?

A lot more than you’ve already heard. For every obvious reason (i.e., quarterback Chad Pennington) there is a deeper explanation of the Jets’ 41-0 rout of the Indianapolis Colts on Saturday, and maybe some clues about how well the Jets will do in this Sunday’s game with the Oakland Raiders.

The Jets are riding the West Coast offense all the way to Oakland. Pennington used nine different receivers against Indianapolis, rendering the Colts’ defense unable to focus on shutting down a particular threat. Even little-used second-string tight end Chris Baxter joined the fray with a three-yard reception in the third quarter, becoming the seventh different player to catch a touchdown pass from the benevolent young QB. But while the Jets’ embrace of the West Coast offense’s egalitarianism will get them to Oakland, the Raiders’ longtime proficiency with the same system got them the conference’s best record—Rich Gannon has been as much point guard as quarterback, firing throws to 11 different receivers this season and hitting four of them 50 or more times. The Raiders haven’t seen the new and improved Jet offense under Pennington, but their defense practices against the West Coast offense’s complex schemes every day.

Another reason not to jump for joy quite yet is that the Jets were fortunate on Saturday that Indy receivers dropped six Peyton Manning passes, three in the first quarter alone. Even the dynamic Marvin Harrison, who set an NFL season record with 143 catches, dropped one. But don’t count on the same jitters from Raider receivers Jerry Rice and Tim Brown, who are first and second in all-time NFL receiving yardage.

On the other hand, the Jets might have an edge in field position similar to what they had against the Colts. While handing the Jet offense the ball at an average of the 38-yard line (compared with the 29 for the Colts), Coach Mike Westhoff’s special teams also produced two backbreaking plays: Ray Mickens’s fumble recovery of a kickoff seconds after the Jets had taken a 10-0 lead and Chad Morton’s 70-yard kickoff return to open the second half. “It all starts with our coach, because he expects so much of us,” said Morton after the game. “Sometimes, if we get a 50- or 60-yard return, and it’s not blocked perfectly, he’ll still get mad at us.” Westhoff may find little to grouse about in Oakland, where his kick returners face one of the most porous special-teams defenses in the NFL, worse than all but the Cincinnati Bengals against punt returns and dead last in covering kickoffs.

If you’re looking for a key to how the game’s going, focus on the Jets’ second downs. During the regular season, the Jets were a middling 15th in the league in converting third-down plays into first downs. But against the Colts, offensive coordinator Paul Hackett found a solution: Be aggressive on second-down plays. The Jets gained an average of 8.23 yards on second downs, converting 13 first downs. They also found that it is a lot easier (55 percent easy) to move the chains on third down when there are fewer yards to gain. The Jet offense had best remain aggressive this Sunday. The Raider defense allowed opponents to convert a mere 38.3 percent of their third downs and ended the season by holding the league’s highest-scoring offense (Kansas City) scoreless. —Paul Forrester

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