He knew he was looking at six points the instant the ball landed in his hands. "There aren't too many people in the league who can catch me," New York Giants linebacker Jessie Armstead said in recounting his 57-yard interception return for a touchdown against the Philadelphia Eagles on Sunday. "I never even worry about someone catching me." In addition to that play, which put New York up 7-0, Armstead had another interception plus a sack and 10 tackles in a 31-21 win that moved the Giants within one victory of an improbable division title.
The season has come down to this for New York, picked by many to finish last in the NFC East: Beat the Washington Redskins on Saturday at the Meadowlands and win the division for the first time since 1990. If the Giants reach the playoffs, much of the credit will go to a fiery defense that has carried an offense beset by injuries and inconsistency at quarterback.
The rejuvenated Danny Kanell's three touchdown tosses on Sunday didn't fool anyone into believing that the offense can carry New York the rest of the way. The Giants forced Eagles quarterback Bobby Hoying into five turnovers, and two of Kanell's scoring tosses came after Hoying fumbled at his 33-and 40-yard lines. "The defense put the offense in good situations," Armstead said.
An eighth-round draft pick out of Miami in 1993, Armstead has quietly developed into one of the NFL's most versatile defenders, and he's the Giant most often mentioned as the player likely to be the team's first Pro Bowl representative since 1993. Already respected for his run stuffing and blitzing, Armstead showed on Sunday that he's a premier cover man as well. Hoying's second attempt of the game was thrown in the direction of wideout Michael Timpson. Armstead, who was shadowing running back Ricky Watters, drifted into the flat, made an over-the-shoulder catch and streaked down the sideline for the touchdown. Armstead had set the tone in a game that was less than three minutes old. "Somehow he saw where the play was going and was smart enough to leave his man and break toward the wide receiver," Giants linebacker Corey Miller said afterward.
As one of New York's defensive captains, Armstead calls adjustments at the line, which is no easy assignment. Each week first-year defensive coordinator John Fox loads up the game plan with schemes. "Last year we were so vanilla," Miller said. "We'd go into a game with two or three coverages. Today we had about 20."
Which was more than enough. Hoying, a second-year player who came into the game with one interception in his previous 125 attempts, was picked off three times and was limited to 129 passing yards until his final possession. "This is how we're supposed to play," New York cornerback Phillippi Sparks said. "We expect to shut people down. We know we can do that."