- The Washington Times - Sunday, January 5, 2003

The New York Giants finally seem to have found an offense.
An organization perpetually committed to close games, good defense and efficient (read: boring) offense is starting to play with the sizzle of a Broadway musical.
Quarterback Kerry Collins has the most passing yards in team history. Running back Tiki Barber led the NFC in total yards. Wide receiver Amani Toomer has emerged as a premier target. And rookie tight end Jeremy Shockey provides the X-factor with precocious talent and a defiant attitude that is definitely New York.
This afternoon the San Francisco 49ers' ability to contain the Giants' surging offense just might determine the outcome of their NFC wild-card game at 49ers Stadium. It's a rematch of the league's opening game Sept.5, a 16-13 win by New York.
"We're playing a good Giants football team," 49ers coach Steve Mariucci said. "They were good when we played earlier in the year. They have improved since then. Kerry Collins is playing well, Amani Toomer is having a fine year, and Tiki Barber has really come into his own. Our work will be cut out for us with those skill players on offense."
Only Tennessee, which has won five straight to earn a first-round bye in the AFC, enters the playoffs hotter than the Giants (10-6), who won four in a row to rally into the postseason from 6-6.
By contrast, San Francisco (10-6) has lost four of its last seven to stumble in as NFC West champion. The 49ers are have not won a game by 10 or more points since October and as a result are only a three-point favorite the standard home-field edge. It's the smallest point spread among the wild-card games.
"I think we just kept improving throughout the year," Collins said.
Such confidence seemed unlikely Dec.1, when the Giants blew a 12-point, fourth-quarter lead to lose in overtime to Tennessee. A week earlier, they lost to Houston, an expansion team. The media were howling for the job of coach Jim Fassel, who, despite leading New York to Super Bowl XXXV just two seasons ago, never dominated the scene like Bill Parcells often did in the late 1980s and 1990.
Those dominations soon came.
The Giants held off Washington on Dec.8 and beat Dallas and Indianapolis by a combined 81-34. Then they generated 462 yards in a season-ending win over Philadelphia, making for a 436-yard average over the final three weeks and culminating a turnaround that began with Fassel taking over the play-calling with nine games to go.
"I'm the head coach," Fassel said. "If any area is not functioning, then I'm going to take control of it. That is what they pay me to do. Sometimes you can walk away and put the finger on somebody else and [absolve] yourself of the blame, but that is not my personality. That is what this organization pays me to do. The organization pays me to fix problems."
Fassel's fixes helped Collins, Barber and Toomer three solid but previously unspectacular talents put up numbers that are among the NFL's best:
Collins threw for 4,073 yards a team record and most in the NFC after he signed a modest contract extension before the season.
Barber emerged as a true featured back, rushing for 1,387 yards, one off the NFC lead of New Orleans' Deuce McAllister. Barber twisted his back and left Friday's practice, but, said Fassel, "there's nothing wrong with him. I was just very precautionary."
Toomer managed 82 catches for 1,343 yards but starter Ike Hilliard missed the last nine games and, other than Toomer, there's no other threat wideout. Hilliard still ranks second among Giants wideouts with 386 yards; Ron Dixon, next at 377, is questionable today with a knee injury.
It isn't all Fassel's play-calling. Shockey undoubtedly elevated the offense. His enthusiasm for the game borders on arrogance, but he backs it up. He led all NFL tight ends with 74 catches for 894 yards and was the only rookie voted into the Pro Bowl.

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