The curse of the NFC East fell over the St. Louis Cardinals and New York Giants today in the division's "other" game. The Cardinals won, 31-21, but stay tuned one more week for what that really means.
Until then, slap a label on this game: "No decision."
The Cardinals, who nearly self-destructed three weeks ago against the Giants in New Jersey, surprised even themselves with a masterful performance to stave off elimination before 49,973 at Busch Memorial Stadium.
So, instead of three NFC East teams (Dallas, Washington and New York) fighting for the division title and possibly two wild-card spots, there are four. And the Los Angeles Rams (10-5) also are in the wild-card race.
"It's very unfortunate," said Giants running back Joe Morris, who gained 107 yards on 16 carries. "We had control of our destiny, and now we have to wait for the others to help us."
And St. Louis (9-6 and tied with the Cowboys and the Giants) could well be the hottest of them all heading into RFK Stadium to play the Redskins next Sunday.
"We've got our confidence up, and we can still do it," said Cardinals quarterback Neil Lomax, who completed 23 of 33 passes for 305 yards, three touchdowns and, most important of all, no interceptions.
"For the last few weeks, I've been saying we need to be patient," Lomax said. "We've had some problems, but there's one more to go, and we're still in it."
St. Louis won its third in a row today following a 16-10 loss to the Giants last month in which it committed six turnovers.
The Cardinals took control in the second quarter, moving to a 14-7 halftime lead. But the Giants tied the score twice before the Cardinals scored 10 straight points in the fourth quarter.
Running back Ottis Anderson's 12-yard, side-stepping run through the arms of linebacker Lawrence Taylor into the end zone with 12:17 to play gave the Cardinals the lead for good at 28-21. Neil O'Donoghue's 34-yard field goal finished the job with 4:54 remaining.
"It was a sweet win, no question about it," said St. Louis Coach Jim Hanifan, who has taken a team to the playoffs only once (in the '82 strike season) in five seasons with the Cardinals. "Now, next week -- well, I'm going to enjoy this one for a couple of hours."
It is an easy game to savor. Lomax called it a "street fight." In the first quarter, when the Giants jumped to a 7-0 lead and threatened to take control, the Cardinals reminded Lomax of a team he once knew. Three weeks ago.
"With the missed field goal (a 40-yarder on the first possession) and the turnover (Anderson's fumble on the second possession), we could have been like the Cardinals of old," he said. "But we weren't."
Along with the turnovers in that span, the Cardinals lost left guard Terry Stieve due to a broken right fibula.
The Giants jumped to their lead when quarterback Phil Simms, who was only 13 of 31 for 175 yards, completed five of seven passes on the opening drive. His last was for five yards to Lionel Manuel, who went in motion on third and goal at the five and beat free safety Benny Perrin for an easy touchdown.
The Giants had every reason to believe they would score again after Anderson fumbled at the New York 30. They gained a quick first down, but, out of the shotgun on third and nine from the 41, Curtis Greer sacked Simms for a loss of nine yards.
On the next play -- Dave Jennings' punt -- Elvis Patterson slammed into return man Stump Mitchell while the kick was still in the air, floating toward Mitchell.
The resulting interference penalty put the ball at the St. Louis 46 and gave the Cardinals new life. Lomax completed four of five passes on an eight-play drive, but the key pass was not his. Mitchell, who never before had attempted a pass in the NFL, took a pitch from Lomax and threw to running back Earl Ferrell for a gain of 20 to the New York 12.
Three plays later, Lomax threw a four-yard pass to Pat Tilley, who cradled the ball into his gloved hands to tie the score midway through the second quarter.
The Cardinals scored again after linebacker Thomas Howard got his first of two interceptions, at the New York 49. This time, Mitchell was the star again, although in a more familiar role. He came out of the backfield, slid between two defenders on a crossing pattern and took a pass from Lomax 44 yards for a 14-7 lead.
The second half began in a chilly rain, an appropriate setting for a New York comeback. The Giants cooperated as tight end Zeke Mowatt, who had been called offside on an 11-yard gain by Morris one play earlier, slipped behind Howard for an 18-yard scoring catch with five minutes gone in the second half, and the score was tied, 14-14.
But the Cardinals answered with a daring call less than two minutes later. On fourth and five at the New York 35, following Mitchell's 55-yard kickoff return, Lomax looked to Hanifan on the sideline.
"We're going," Hanifan yelled. He later explained: "I felt like, 'What the hell?' We're too far out to kick a field goal, and a punt, if it goes in the end zone, nets only 15 yards. To me, it was the turning point of the game."
Lomax planned to dump the ball to Mitchell over the middle for the five yards. But he saw one-on-one coverage on Roy Green, the team's leading receiver.
He amended the play and went to Green for a 35-yard touchdown. Green beat Kenny Daniel, a reserve playing for Mark Haynes, who had sprained his knee earlier in the game.
"They left Roy one on one," Lomax said, "and I'm not looking that off. They've been taking Roy away the last three or four games, so I thought, 'Take it.' "
Green, who was left with single coverage more often than usual, caught six passes for 89 yards. In the game three week ago, against a game-long prevent defense, he caught only one. Asked about the change in coverage, Green said, "I think they decided to challenge me today."
The Giants came back once more, this time on Rob Carpenter's one-yard run late in the third quarter. But that was it, as the Cardinals controlled the fourth quarter and, ultimately, the game.