Sunday's 20-6 defeat of the Indianapolis Colts guaranteed the Giants post-season activity for the first time since 1991, when an ageing team performed a memorable last hurrah for Bill Parcells and won Super Bowl XXV. Parcells then disappeared into the sunset - reappearing on a New England hillside this year - and was replaced by one of his sidekicks, Ray Handley.
After two mediocre years the Giants appeared to be in severe decline, needing to get worse before they could get better, and Handley was fired. Enter Dan Reeves, late of the Denver Broncos. Reeves, like Parcells, was a coach of the old school: authoritarian, intransigent and successful. Few Broncos mourned his passing and many expected him to have problems with a team of voluble personalities whose lack of respect for Handley played a significant part in his downfall.
In fact Reeves' discipline was just what the fallen Giants needed. He ended a damaging quarterback controversy by dispatching Jeff Hostetler to the Raiders and installing Phil Simms as the starter, traded well and instituted his own back-to-basics campaign by concentrating on the twin Giant virtues of solid defense and effective rushing.
Both played their part as the Colts were brushed aside, with Rodney Hampton running for 173 yards and the Colts - without a touchdown now in 17 quarters - limited to a pair of field goals.
The only challenge offered to the Giants in the once fearsome, now fearful, NFC East comes from the Dallas Cowboys. The Super Bowl holders disposed of the Vikings in Minnesota, but played well short of the standards they demand of themselves.
'We won, but I don't think we are anywhere near where we were this time last year. You will know when we play really well,' said the wide receiver Michael Irvin, who caught eight passes for 125 yards and a TD. Emmitt Smith rushed for 104 yards on just 19 carries to go over the 1,000-yard mark for the third successive season.
The San Francisco 49ers, widely regarded as the Cowboys' biggest obstacle on the road to the Super Bowl, made a hash of things in Atlanta, conceding 20 fourth-quarter points as they lost 27-24.
The Falcons, who began the season 0-5 are now 6-7; the New Orleans Saints, who began 5-0, are now 7-6. The Saints' sixth defeat in eight came at home to the distinctly underwhelming Los Angeles Rams.
Jerome Bettis started the game by coughing up a fumble which was returned for a touchdown, but finished with 212 rushing yards - the first rookie to notch a double century since Bo Jackson in 1987.
The Saints' fall is the most dramatic since, well since the Philadelphia Eagles' current demise: they have lost eight out of nine after going 4-0. Randall Cunningham, who guided them to those four victories then broke his leg, may be the nearest the NFL gets to a one-man team. Defeat this week came at the hands of the Buffalo Bills, who scored twice in the fourth quarter to win
10-7 in Veterans Stadium.
The Kansas City Chiefs lost their first game with Joe Montana as starting quarterback, though their 27-21 defeat by the Denver Broncos can hardly be classified as a surprise - it was the Chiefs' 11th successive reverse in Mile High Stadium.
The Houston Oilers remain the league's form team, a greedy defense and the boot of Al del Greco seeing off the Cleveland Browns and making it eight victories in a row. A ninth, next week against Pittsburgh, and they, like the Giants, will be certain of making the play-offs.
NFL: Houston 19 Cleveland 17, LA Rams 23 New Orleans 20, New England 7 Cincinnati 2, NY Giants 20 Indianapolis 6, Buffalo 10 Philadelphia 7, Tampa Bay 13 Chicago 10, Denver 27 Kansas City 21, LA Raiders 27 Seattle 23, Dallas 37 Minnesota 20, Detroit 21 Phoenix 14, Green Bay 20 San Diego 13. Saturday: Atlanta 27 San Francisco 24, NY Jets 3 Washington 0.
Standings, Sporting Digest, page 39
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