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THE HEALING BEGAN AT A BLACKJACK table, of all places, in a banquet room at Giants Stadium in the middle of baseball season. A June minicamp had come to an end, but New York Giants players and coaches were instructed to convene for one last meeting before going their separate ways. Seated at the table, carrying neither a whistle nor his familiar scowl, was coach Tom Coughlin, waiting for face cards. It was a team-only casino night, the first in Coughlin's four-year tenure and an uncharacteristic off-season overture from the coach to his players.
The gamble paid off big. "It gave us a chance to see him as something other than just Coach Coughlin, standing at the podium, giving a speech," defensive back R.W. McQuarters says. "We put football to the side. We were just guys."
Since then the Giants have found common ground with their coach, created magic in a season that began in peril and, on Jan. 13, crushed the Super Bowl hopes of hated rival Dallas on its own field. Against the Cowboys at Texas Stadium, facing tall odds and playing on weary legs, New York scripted a remarkable afternoon that culminated in a 21-17 victory and a berth in the NFC title game at Green Bay.
Even as Dallas mounted one last drive, reaching the Giants' 23-yard line with less than a minute to play, New York linebacker Antonio Pierce pulled his teammates close for final instructions and some late inspiration. "Nobody gave us a chance," Pierce reminded his mates. "Nobody thought we would be here."
With 16 seconds left and the Cowboys facing fourth-and-11, Tony Romo whistled the ball toward receiver Terry Glenn in the end zone. When McQuarters stepped in front and intercepted the pass, the visitors' sideline erupted, Coughlin and his men celebrating the Giants' first trip to a conference title game since the 2000 season.
Dallas had twice decked the Giants on its way to the NFC East title, but in the third meeting it was New York that delivered the knockout. After Romo lit up the Giants for eight TDs in the regular season, keeping many plays alive with his feet, New York added several blitzes to its pressure package. The Giants sacked Romo twice in the fourth quarter and harassed him to the point that the defensive line could hear him as he tried to make adjustments. "I think he was getting a little worried," said defensive end Osi Umenyiora. "He was telling Marion Barber to chip [block] me."
Afterward, the Giants dressed amid laughter, Pierce asking for popcorn with butter and salt, a reference to Dallas wideout Terrell Owens's oft-mentioned snack recommendation. McQuarters walked off clutching the football he'd snagged from Romo, planning to give it to his son, Rylan Wynter, who turned eight that day. One after another the Giants followed him toward the team buses, their ninth straight road win behind them, underdogs chugging north toward Lambeau.