Vanquishing the Vikings
New York overwhelms Minnesota at its own game
Updated: Sunday January 14, 2001 6:30 PM
EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. (AP) -- Underrated and understated, the New York Giants are going to the Super Bowl. That's guaranteed.
On the eve of the NFC Championship Game, head coach Jim Fassel considered the task ahead. The longshot Giants were facing a tough Minnesota team, dismissed so thoroughly that they were the first No. 1 seed in the playoffs to be an underdog at home in many years.
"Coming into a game like that, I'm sure a lot of people had their doubts about us. Is the game too large, too much?" Fassel said. "I never felt that way at all."
So Fassel offered an observation to the Giants.
"I told this team last night, there's one team in this league that already calls itself America's Team," he said. "I said, 'You know what? We're living the American dream. We're the American Dream.'"
The dream continues, punctuated by a 41-0 blowout of the Vikings that has the Giants convinced that Fassel knew what he was talking about all along.
This was a team staggering through the season so badly that the coach felt obliged to take the heat off with one of those grandstand guarantees.
His midseason assurance that the Giants would make the playoffs was mostly shrugged off as an empty promise.
Except in the team's dressing room.
"I knew we had the talent," safety Shaun Williams said. "I knew once we came together and played as a team, we had the capability. We went out and did it."
Lomas Brown, part of a reconstructed offensive line, endorsed the promise.
"We had been shooting ourselves in the foot," he said. "It gets to the point where you have so much pride, you don't let anything stop you. The defense has always been a step ahead. Once the offense caught up, we did what we needed to do."
And that was to start winning on a consistent basis.
Fassel started the season on the hot seat, given just a one-year extension on his contract after last season.
The Giants made the playoffs just once in three years and then bailed out badly, blowing a nine-point lead in the final two minutes of the wild-card game against Minnesota in 1997. At the end of that game, Giants players were bickering with each other on the sideline.
That was followed by 8-8 and 7-9 seasons that marked this as a mediocre team, no threat to the elite of the league.
The NFC powerhouse was St. Louis, the defending Super Bowl champions. The class of the division was Washington, fortified with a fistful of big-name, free agent signings.
Strictly also-rans, especially after a winless preseason.
Fassel had the trap door positioned directly under him. One more ho-hum season and he'd almost certainly be gone.
With that hanging over him, Fassel set out on this season. Taking advantage of a weak schedule, the Giants zipped to a 7-2 start. Then came the crisis. The Giants were blown out by the Rams and then lost to Detroit in a game in which they fell behind by 28-0 before losing 31-21.
Consecutive losses at home cast a pall on the team. The offense, operated by retread quarterback Kerry Collins, seemed listless. The defense seemed ordinary. This was a team on a treadmill, headed nowhere.
That's when Fassel stepped forward.
"This is a horse race and we're coming around the far turn," he said. "I see the finish line. I want no ambiguity on where we're going to go. I'm going to define it completely. Things are changing right now because we're getting around the far turn and heading for the home stretch."
The Giants then went on a tear. They finished the regular season with five straight wins, clinching the division and home field through the playoffs. Fassel's guarantee was delivered, punctuated by playoff wins against Philadelphia and Minnesota.
"I don't think it transformed them into a Super Bowl team," Fassel said, referring to his promise. "It lit a match. And that fire has been burning since then."
Now he needs the flame to last for one more game.