The New York Giants squandered a chance to take over sole possession of first place in the NFC East today, losing four turnovers--including two critical fourth-quarter fumbles--and failing to control the passing duo of quarterback Peyton Manning and wide receiver Marvin Harrison.
The result was a 27-19 victory by the poised Indianapolis Colts, who won their fifth straight and at 7-2 moved into a tie for first place in the AFC East with the Miami Dolphins. The Buffalo Bills (7-3) and New England Patriots (6-2), who play the New York Jets Monday night, are close behind.
"We got three teams in our division with seven wins, and if New England wins that will make four. That's just unbelievable," Colts Coach Jim Mora said. "This is so tough, so tight, you feel like every game is so critical--not only for the division, but just to make the playoffs. I just know we fought our fool heads off the whole 60 minutes."
The Giants did, too, but fell to 5-4, the same record as the Redskins and Dallas Cowboys. That sets up a match of so-called first-place teams when New York comes to Redskins Stadium next Sunday, seven weeks after Washington pasted the Giants, 50-21, at Giants Stadium.
New York had a three-game winning streak snapped today, with Manning and Harrison doing major damage. Harrison had six receptions for 109 yards and two touchdowns--a 19-yarder to start the scoring and a 57-yard catch to open a 14-6 lead early in the third quarter. Both times, veteran cornerback Phillippi Sparks was beaten badly, and both times he and Harrison exchanged bumps and heated words.
Manning, who is in his second season, completed 20 of 35 passes for 237 yards. He did so despite a frequently blitzing pass rush that never did manage to sack him, but constantly knocked him down after he released the ball.
"It feels great; we'll take these all day," he said. "The tough part is that the secret is out now--we're not really sneaking up on teams any more. I think early on, we might have caught some teams off guard, but we feel like teams are going to be ready for us now and we have to play even better."
The Colts stretched their advantage to 24-6 when rookie free agent Terrence Wilkins, from the University of Virginia, snaked through the Giants' punt coverage and returned Brad Maynard's poor kick 39 yards for a touchdown that sent thousands of disgusted fans scurrying to the parking lots. As it turned out, they deserted a tad too early.
Though the Giants' anemic offense was booed early and often, New York got within 12 early in the fourth quarter on a 33-yard scoring pass from Kent Graham to Amani Toomer. The Giants went for a two-point conversion but failed when Graham's pass was knocked down.
The Colts took over at their 20, and on first down, the Giants allowed rookie running back Edgerrin James to dash through a hole on the right side, then veer to his right and up the sideline. Cornerback Jason Sehorn had a shot at pulling down the big back, but was stiff-armed for an extra 20 yards before teammates caught up and knocked James down at the 8. It was a 72-yard gain, his longest run of the season.
That dash set up Mike Vanderjagt's 35-yard field goal for a 27-12 lead with 11:37 remaining. But the Giants answered when Graham completed a 72-yard drive with a seven-yard touchdown pass to Pete Mitchell to cut the lead to eight points with 6:50 left.
They got the ball back twice, but both drives fizzled with fumbles. First, running back LeShon Johnson was stripped by strong safety Chad Cota as he fought for extra yards, and the ball was recovered by cornerback Tony Blevins at the Colts 29.
"I thought I was in the open and all of a sudden someone came and tomahawked the ball and pretty much caught me off guard," Johnson said of his fumble. "At this level, you have to be prepared for everything and I just made a bad mistake."
The Giants' defense forced three plays and a punt, and when Tiki Barber returned the kick 32 yards to the Indianapolis 47, they still had hope with 3:36 left. New York had second and five at the Colts 18 with 1:37 left when Graham completed a short pass to Mitchell. This time, linebacker Cornelius Bennett punched the ball loose, and former Giant Tito Wooten recovered with 1:21 remaining.
Said Mitchell: "I caught the ball and tried to elude the guy and I wasn't covering the ball like I should, and that's what happens. You've got to hold on to the ball. I feel bad I let everyone down."
Giants Coach Jim Fassel felt even worse, especially after he had emphasized to his team the last two weeks (including a bye) to avoid mistakes.
"We talked about winning the turnover battle [they lost, four to the Colts' one]," he said. "We talked about not giving up big plays and we gave up two really big plays [both of Harrison's touchdowns] and we talked about winning the special teams, and they returned a punt on us. If you'd told me with four turnovers and the other things we still had a chance to tie the game up . . . but we didn't do enough right to win the ballgame."