Soon after the expansion Carolina Panthers made Penn State quarterback Kerry Collins the first draft pick in club history, in 1995, the franchise cornerstone skipped the last day of his first minicamp. Driving aimlessly on a Charlotte-area highway, Collins made a cell-phone call to coach Dom Capers and told him, "Coach, I can't take all the pressure on me."
On Jan. 9, five days before Collins would quarterback the New York Giants in the NFC Championship Game against the Minnesota Vikings, the fax machine in his suburban New Jersey home spit out five pages of pressure: the game plan. Offensive coordinator Sean Payton so loved the matchup of Collins against the Vikings' weak secondary and lousy pass rush that he put the game on his quarterback's shoulders. And Kerry Collins laughed. Now he relished the faith his coaches had in him and the pressure they had piled on. The recovering alcoholic and formerly immature player had come a long way in his struggle to be a good NFL quarterback and a better person. Scanning the game plan, he said, "Good, we're going to attack."
New York attacked all right—on both sides of the ball. In their 76-year history the Giants had played 33 postseason games before Sunday's, but none was as stunning and decisive as this one, a 41-0 humbling of the strutting NFC Central champion Vikings at Giants Stadium. The victory sent 14-4 New York into Super Bowl XXXV against the 15-4 Baltimore Ravens on Jan. 28 in Tampa. In command from the first snap, Collins set a Giants playoff record for passing yardage (338) by half-time and finished with the best day of his six-year career: 28 completions in 39 attempts for 381 yards and five touchdowns (with two interceptions)—and he didn't even play in the last quarter. New York had been looking for its quarterback of the future since Phil Simms left before the 1994 season, and the search is finally over.
Two hours after Sunday's triumph, in a cleared-out locker room, Collins, still in uniform, quietly reveled in his accomplishment. "I have more of a sense of humility than exultation," he said. "I have to, because I've gotten into trouble when I've looked for something more in a moment like this. What you're seeing is me being me, or as close to the real me as I've ever been."
Amazingly, the Giants may have been even more impressive on defense than on offense, handing the Vikings their first shutout in coach Dennis Green's nine-year, 156-game tenure. Defensive coordinator John Fox's squad held Minnesota's big three—NFC rushing champ Robert Smith and Pro Bowl wideouts Randy Moss and Cris Carter—to a meaningless total of 84 yards. The loss so embarrassed Moss (two catches, 18 yards, a disengaged participant by halftime) that he talked after the game as if he wanted out. "I'm going to win a Super Bowl one day," said Moss, who next fall will enter the final year of his contract. "I doubt it will be in Minnesota.
"Forty-one donut?" he added. "Who can believe that?"
"Forty-one nothing?" said Fox. "Not in my wildest dreams did I imagine that."
No one did. But such an NFC Championship Game upset was in keeping with the spirit of this weird season, as was the Giants' surge after a decade of mediocrity. Entering 2000 they were an inglorious 71-75-1 since winning Super Bowl XXV following the 1990 season. An air of skepticism still enveloped New York going into Sunday's game; though they had three wins over Philadelphia, the Giants had bombed in big tests against Tennessee, St. Louis and Detroit. "The Giants are the weakest Number 1 seed in NFL playoff history!" New York sports talk radio host Chris Russo bellowed on WFAN last week.
In an unguarded moment before dawn last Thursday, New York coach Jim Fassel, an incurable optimist, opened his middle desk drawer and pulled out a Giants pocket schedule. "I've never shown anybody this," he said. "After we lost at Washington in Week 4 [his team's first defeat after three victories], I came in the next day and tried to figure out what games we'd need to win to make the playoffs."
He held out the card. He had written a W next to eight of the remaining games; only the spaces next to Tennessee, St. Louis, Washington again and Jacksonville were blank. In Week 5 the Norman Vincent Peale of NFL coaches was projecting his team to go 11-5; the Giants would finish the regular season 12-4. "See?" Fassel said. "That's the kind of year it's been. Like I tell the team all the time: The best team doesn't always win. The team that plays the best wins. As the year has gone on, we've played the best a whole lot."