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October 11, 2004 Edition > Section:  Sports

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Giants Bend, But Don't Break
Coach on the Couch

BY SEAN LAHMAN
October 11, 2004

Most NFL teams can win games at home against struggling opponents. Going on the road to battle playoff teams is a better measure of how good you are. In the last two weeks, the Giants have won convincingly in Green Bay and Dallas, serving notice to the league that they are playoff contenders.

The Giants entered yesterday's game with a run defense giving up 4.7 yards per carry, and the Cowboys intended to test what they perceived as a weak spot. Dallas came out running the ball and wracked up 115 yards on the ground by halftime. What they discovered, though, is that the numbers on the stat sheet don't tell the whole story.

The Giants' run defense has employed a bend-but-don't-break philosophy, preventing opponents from making big plays and stiffening as they get closer to the goal line. In the first quarter, the Cowboys' Eddie George rambled for a 24-yard gain into the red zone - only the second time the Giants have given up a run that long this season.

But Dallas couldn't break into the end zone. On fourth down from the Giant 5-yard line, George was stuffed for a 2-yard loss. That series was typical of what the Big Blue defense has done all year. The Giants are one of two NFL teams (Arizona being the other) that still hasn't given up a rushing touchdown this season.

A year ago, the Giants were self-destructing with turnovers and penalties, and finished with a league worst minus-16 turnover differential. This year, they're protecting the ball (four turnovers in five games) and lead the league with 15 takeaways.

In the third quarter, the Cowboys had the kind of meltdown that we grew so accustomed to seeing from the Giants last year. It started when special-teamer Keith Davis was flagged for running into Giants punter Jeff Feagles. Instead of taking over the ball near midfield, the penalty gave New York new life.

On the next play, Tiki Barber burst through the line for a 58-yard gain. A facemask penalty on DE Greg Ellis and a personal foul on MLB Dat Nguyen helped set up a 1-yard touchdown pass to tight end Jeremy Shockey. The score gave the Giants a 13-10 lead and turned out to be the winning touchdown. We haven't seen that sort of sloppy play from the Giants this year, and that's a big part of why they're heading into their bye week with a 4-1 record.

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It hasn't been easy, but the Jets are 4-0, equaling the best start in franchise history. Leading 13-0 midway through the fourth quarter against the Bills yesterday, the Jets defense gave up two touchdowns in three minutes and let the Bills take a one-point lead before Doug Brien hit his game-winning field goal with less than a minute on the clock.

The close finishes have become commonplace for the Jets this year. Against the Bengals in the season opener, it took an interception in the final minutes to preserve the victory. The Chargers' fierce fourth quarter comeback fell just short in Week 3, and the Dolphins had three scoring opportunities in the second half of what turned out to be an eight-point Jets win in Week 4.

The problem has been Gang Green's habit of playing smothering defense for three quarters before switching into contain mode to protect their lead late in the game. It hasn't worked - the strategy that rarely does. Defensive coordinator Donnie Henderson should be closing out games with the same aggressive style of play that makes the Jets so formidable early in the game.

If they had faced teams that were better than the 0-4 Bills or the 1-3 Bengals, those two close wins might have ended up as defeats. For all of the things they've done well this year, the Jets are a couple of plays from being 2-2.

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For the second straight week, Jets running back Curtis Martin moved up one place on the all-time rushing list. With 77 yards yesterday, he moved past Franco Harris into ninth place with 12,171 yards. Martin needs 72 yards next week against the 49ers to pass Marcus Allen, and another 69 yards to move ahead of Jim Brown.

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With six minutes left in their game against the Rams, the Seattle Seahawks were nursing a 27-10 lead and heading for the first 4-0 start in franchise history. Their defense, which had allowed only 13 points in their first three games, had done a good job of shutting down St. Louis running back Marshall Faulk and had intercepted QB Marc Bulger three times.

But Bulger rallied the Rams for 17 points in five and a half minutes to force the game into overtime, and then hit Shaun McDonald for a 52-yard touchdown pass to steal the victory.

After allowing just 23 points in their first 15 quarters of play, the Seattle defense gave this one away by surrendering 23 unanswered points in a game that appeared to be over. It's the kind of soft play we saw too often in Seattle last year, and it's reason to question whether this team is a serious Super Bowl contender.

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The 49ers pulled off a nearly identical comeback, rallying from a 16-point deficit with five minutes left and beating the Arizona Cardinals in overtime. San Francisco quarterback Tim Rattay set a team record with 38 pass completions. That's pretty impressive for a franchise whose history includes the likes of Joe Montana, Steve Young, and Y.A. Tittle. The first-year starter doesn't have a great cast around him, but he's played well this year.

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