After banging his head against the New York Giants' defensive wall for the third time in five months, vanquished Philadelphia Eagles quarterback Donovan McNabb moved toward one of his conquerors, defensive end Michael Strahan, on the chewed-up Giants Stadium turf. There had already been contact between them, initiated by Strahan—two sacks of McNabb and a forced fumble in a playoff performance worthy of Lawrence Taylor—but now it was McNabb who moved in for the kill shot: a killer hug. "I'm so proud of you!" Strahan shouted into McNabb's ear as they embraced, straining to be heard over Bruce Springsteen's Glory Days on the P.A. "You took your team so far!"
"You're the man!" McNabb replied.
Both men were right. The 13-4 Giants advanced to the NFC Championship Game against the Minnesota Vikings with a jack-hammering defensive effort in a 20-10 divisional playoff win over Philadelphia, completing a three-game season sweep of the Eagles—all by double digits. That smart, smothering defense is the reason New York has a chance to return to the Super Bowl for the first time in 10 years. On Sunday, when they face the Vikings' Daunte Culpepper (a mobile quarterback in the McNabb mold) and his strong offensive line (also in the Philly mold), the Giants will have this booster shot of confidence going for them: Each of their three meetings with Philadelphia was essentially over by halftime. New York held 17-, 14- and 14-point leads at intermission of the three games, including the 17-3 lead on Sunday. Total Eagles possessions in those three first halves: 22. Eagles touchdowns in those three first halves: zero.
There's the small matter of Minnesota wideouts Randy Moss and Cris Carter and running back Robert Smith being oh-so-slight upgrades on Torrance Small, Charles Johnson and Chris Warren. For now, though, why wreck a good fairy tale? Indeed, that's what this story seems like. Ten years ago Bill Parcells, the Giants' coach at the time, rode defense, special teams and an offense he hoped wouldn't screw up to a 15-13 NFC Championship Game win over the favored San Francisco 49ers and then to a 20-19 Super Bowl win over the favored Buffalo Bills. Last weekend New York coach Jim Fassel rode defense (six sacks, 186 net Eagles yards), special teams (rookie Ron Dixon returned the opening kickoff 97 yards for a touchdown) and an offense that didn't screw up (36 minutes of possession time) to victory. The Giants are underdogs against the Vikings and will be big underdogs to the AEC winner if they reach Super Bowl XXXV. "This is why sports are so cool," said New York running back Tiki Barber, who gutted out an ugly 48-yard day (35 yards rushing, 13 receiving) with a broken left forearm. "Surprising things happen. Who'd have thought Bill Buckner, a good defensive player, would let the ball roll through his legs in the World Series? Nobody expected us to be here, but we refuse to listen. It can be a self-fulfilling prophecy. We're making our own prophecy."
To be sure, this team's success is no fluke. Since Fassel's rambling guarantee on Nov. 22 that the Giants would make the playoffs they are 6-0, with the defense allowing an average of 12 points and 247 yards a game. The defensive coordinator, bushy-haired 45-year-old John Fox, a coaching lifer (14 jobs in 22 years), cooks up a different brew each week with a unit that is sending only one player, linebacker Jessie Armstead, to the Pro Bowl.
When Fox began to prepare a game plan for the Eagles, he saw two major differences since the two teams last met, in October: Warren, acquired on waivers in December, gave Philadelphia a competent running back, and McNabb had matured significantly—had become a maestro, in Fox's view, at knowing when to run and when to pass. Fox wasn't worried about Warren, because the Giants' run defense, first in the NFC, has been stifling this year. However, he knew he had to keep McNabb in the pocket. Fox decided to mix zone, man and zone-blitz coverages, willy-nilly, and when they blitzed, it would be from the outside. On obvious third-down passing situations, New York would employ either of two spies. (A spy lingers near the line, mirroring the movement of the quarterback, and chases him if he runs.) One, middle linebacker Micheal Barrow, was predictable. The other was not. On the Wednesday before the game, in a defensive team meeting to unveil the game plan, Fox announced that Cornelius Griffin, a 300-pound defensive tackle, would be the second spy. "Cool," Griffin said.
Risky move, but Fox knew two things: The Eagles would never expect it, and Griffin, with five sacks and five passes batted down this year, is one of the quickest big men he'd ever seen. "He keeps telling us he's the fastest 300-pound man on the planet," Fox says. "We put a lot on his plate, but we were confident he could handle it."
On third-and-four on Philadelphia's first series, Griffin dropped back from his defensive tackle slot to spy McNabb, who tried to stutter-step his way through traffic. Griffin and defensive tackle Keith Hamilton sandwiched him for a one-yard sack. Early in the third quarter, on third-and-eight from the Eagles' 15, McNabb, looking to scramble, moved up in the pocket, tried to juke past Griffin and got leveled for another one-yard sack. "It wasn't too hard," the unflappable Griffin said. "Nothing outrageous. I mean, you stand in front of a guy and tackle him if he tries to go by you."
But this is Donovan McNabb, Griffin was reminded—the new Steve Young, the best runner-passer in the game. He shrugged and said, "He's a great quarterback, but we confused him pretty good."
The Giants also had a terrific bull rush, led by Strahan, who manhandled tackle Jon Runyan. Strahan is a very good two-way 275-pound defensive end who has improved his play against the run while remaining a strong pass rusher. Runyan is a 325-pound mountain of a run-blocker. Strahan thinks Runyan's a dirty player who has tried to cut him at the knees. Runyan thinks Strahan's a trash talker. Twice in the first half Strahan ran over Runyan and sacked McNabb. "Strahan just killed Runyan!" Armstead crowed after the game.