There was no more glorious moment for a New York Giants football fan than the one that occurred with six minutes left in New York's 16-10 victory over the St. Louis Cardinals this afternoon.
The Giants, who had begun the day tied for third place with the Cardinals, had just stretched their lead from two to nine points, 16-7, on scrambling quarterback Phil Simms' 11-yard pass to wide receiver Lionel Manuel and Ali Haji-Sheikh's extra point.
This alone sent the 73,428 spectators at Giants Stadium into ecstasy.
But it was followed, moments after the Giants kicked off, by these two tidbits:
"Here are two fourth-quarter scores," public address announcer Bob Sheppard began. "Philadelphia 16, Washington 10." The crowd cheered.
"And Buffalo 14 . . . " More cheers. "Dallas 3."
The place went wild.
Soon after his team had held off a furious rally by breaking up Neil Lomax's two last-gasp long passes into the end zone, the Giants' coach, Bill Parcells, allowed himself a milder celebration.
"We're happy to win," he said, "and it's my understanding that some of the competition lost."
He heard the final scores of the losses of the NFC East leaders in the locker room. His reaction?
"I was sad."
Then he smiled.
The Giants had reason to enjoy Week 12 of the NFL season. The Redskins and Cowboys have come back to them.
All three teams have 7-5 records with four weeks left in the season, but the Giants, of all teams, are sitting pretty with two victories over Dallas and a split with the Redskins. St. Louis dropped to 6-6.
"We heard the scores on the P.A.," defensive end George Martin of the Giants said, "and the reaction of the fans demonstrates how we feel: 'Hooray!' We're tied for first place, and that's something the Giants are unaccustomed to."
They are in this position for two reasons: a game-long prevent defense that allowed Roy Green, the Cardinals' leading receiver, to catch only one pass -- it was for 23 yards -- and left Lomax frustrated, plus the Cardinals' incredible generosity.
Lomax was intercepted four times and the Cardinals lost two of three fumbles, which gave them a hefty six turnovers to the Giants' two, both interceptions of Simms. In their last three games, all losses, the Cardinals have had 16 turnovers.
In their previous nine games, they had only 13. Not coincidentally, the Cardinals' record during that stretch was 6-3.
"A lot has been said and written about us," Lomax said disgustedly, "building us up, building me up. Well, today shows we haven't arrived.
"I don't want to say I can't play with the best, but I still have a long way to go. Those were all stupid mistakes I made."
Yet the Giants kept pace, mistake for mistake, through most of the game.
New York consistently squandered scoring opportunities in the first half, as Haji-Sheikh missed field goals attempts of 52 and 34 yards. During that time, the Cardinals turned the ball over twice.
The only scoring of the first half was Lomax's one-yard naked bootleg on a well-executed fake to running back Stump Mitchell at the beginning of the second quarter.
But, by then, the Giants' defensive theme had been set. New York was playing a three-deep, center fielder-style zone, forcing Lomax to throw to his backs -- or not throw at all.
"Last year, both times we played them, we blitzed him about every other play," said Bill Currier, the Giants' strong safety.
"Today, we didn't blitz him at all. With our zone, we forced him to dump it to his backs. Besides that, there was nothing he could do.
"He either threw to his backs or was intercepted," Currier observed.
Green had only three passes thrown his way all day. Part of New York's strategy was to pull its linebackers back, way back.
"We even had our outside linebackers on their wide receivers," Currier said, incredulous at the thought.
On one play, Green remembered he ran 20 yards downfield only to turn around and see a linebacker waiting for him. "Only once did I get behind a defender," Green said.
The Cardinals began to self-destruct in the third quarter when Lomax, who was 19 for 38 for 230 yards, began to force the ball into the impenetrable zone.
His top running back, Ottis Anderson, who gained 111 yards on 24 carries and also caught six passes for 112, stumbled and then fumbled when Currier hit him on St. Louis' first possession of the third quarter.
Simms, who completed only 12 of 30 passes, misfired often near the goal line, but was able to lead the Giants to three field goals by Haji-Sheikh -- 34, 39 and 45 yards -- for a 9-7 lead in the third quarter.
Turnovers set up two of the field goals.
The game turned frantic in the fourth quarter. There were three interceptions in one minute. Simms threw into the teeth of a rush by David Galloway and Curtis Greer. His pass wobbled half its intended distance and into the arms of strong safety Leonard Smith at the St. Louis 33.
Could St. Louis do anything? No. The very next play, cornerback Mark Haynes intercepted Lomax when he threw behind wide receiver Cedric Mack. Two plays later, Simms sent the ball back to St. Louis again.
The Giants' only touchdown ended the turnovers. On second and 10 from the 11, Simms had to scramble to his right.
He motioned for Manuel, who had run to the corner of the end zone, to come back inside. Manuel left cornerback Wayne Smith behind and caught the pass that won the game.
The Cardinals moved to the Giants' three-yard line before Neil O'Donoghue kicked a 20-yard field goal to close the lead to 16-10 with 1:57 remaining in the game.
With 1:21 left, the Cardinals had the ball again after a punt to the St. Louis 25.
Twice, Anderson ran the ball, for a total of 22 yards, before the Cardinals ran out of timeouts and had to throw.
Nothing had changed. The deep passes didn't work. Two final alley-oops into the end zone were batted down as time ran out.
"This puts us back in business," Parcells said. "With a month to go, we're still breathing. And my heart's beating. Hard."