Everything seemed to go the way of the New York Giants. Even the flags at Giants Stadium, which were lowered to half-mast in honor of Wellington Mara, seemed to blow straight and uniformly in their direction. Sometimes it looked like the Washington Redskins were lined up on their side, too.
Without a doubt, the Giants had a 12th man in the spirit of Mara, their devoted owner who died this week at age 89 after a lifetime spent watching over the franchise. The Mara factor was huge. But it didn't explain everything. It didn't explain why the Giants outplayed the Redskins on virtually every play, at every position, and it didn't explain four turnovers, and a 36-0 shutout. There were too many points, and too many things the Giants did well and the Redskins did not, to write it off to the sheer emotion of the day. Plenty of teams come out and sky with emotion, but the Giants had more than emotion. They had execution.
"I don't want to say it's weird," said Giants Coach Tom Coughlin. "I'd like to see it happen every week."
Yes, Mara was a presence. There was a moment of silence in his honor before the game, and every eye in the stadium welled when his granddaughter, Kate, sang the national anthem. Tiki Barber presented another grandson, Tim, with a ball after scoring the Giants' final touchdown. Son John Mara got the game ball from Jeremy Shockey.
Mara was a paternal figure and counselor to many of the Giants, and sometimes he seemed to go out of his way to adopt the most improbable and troubled ones. In the Giants' wild young tight end Shockey, he recognized a young man who had been abandoned by his real father, and who needed some firm direction. They were an unlikely mentor and protege, Mara the devout elder statesman who never missed Mass, and Shockey the hard-binging young lout. Mara set out to make a better man out of him. He succeeded.
Shockey, shorn of ego and serious, discussed Mara at length in the Giants' locker room earlier in the week. "He was always there for me," Shockey said. "When I came into the league, all full of myself, Mr. Mara told me what to expect. He took the time to get to know me as a person. That shows you the kind of character he had. No matter who you were, he always wanted to know the person inside first."
The Giants were united by sentiment for their owner, and they played with mission, and meaning. So this is what it looks like when 11 guys play like they are all on the same side, and as if they are all thinking the same thing on every play. Both the Giants and the Redskins entered the game with 4-2 records that reflected unevenness; both were teams struggling to cure weaknesses and get better. But only one team exited this game with a sense that they had finally put all the pieces together and could build on their performance, and that was the Giants.
It didn't have to be that way — the emotion over Mara's loss could have worked against the Giants, who spent a long and emotional Friday at Mara's funeral in St. Patrick's Cathedral.
Too much emotion is just as often a drawback; it can be draining or misapplied and create mistakes. Yes, there was emotion, and the Giants deserved credit for controlling it. "The guys just put that emotion on their shoulders," said Giants linebacker Antonio Pierce.
It wasn't just emotion, for instance, that allowed Barber to gain more yards rushing, 206, than the entire Redskins offense. The Giants knew the Redskins could be vulnerable to big plays — especially without a healthy Cornelius Griffin — and they created some specific mismatches for Barber, who also had the help of Amani Toomer and Plaxico Burress throwing headlong sacrifice-blocks for him downfield. Barber tore holes in a defense that ranked fourth in the league for a career-best day.
When emotion did play a role, it wasn't always about Mara. The former Redskins linebacker Pierce, who departed Washington somewhat bitterly over money and signed with the Giants this past offseason, was full of channeled anger. Earlier this week, Pierce gave the Giants a thorough tutorial in the defensive philosophy of Gregg Williams, the Redskins' assistant head coach-defense.
It wasn't emotion that held the Redskins to as many first downs — two — as turnovers in the first half. One of them came when Pierce picked off Mark Brunell with less than two minutes to go in the half at the Washington 46. "That's what happens when you know what they're going to do," Pierce said.
And it wasn't just emotion that held the Redskins' Clinton Portis to nine yards rushing. The Giants' defensive unit came into the game rated a lowly 31st in the league, but they had also created an NFC-best 18 turnovers in six games, and now they have four more. Against the Redskins they looked like a steel blanket, and if they can put consistency together with their big-play ability, they are a team to be feared.
"It's an attitude, a 'want to,' 11 guys flying around," Pierce said. "You look at the top teams and that's what you see, it looks like a million guys are around the ball."
The bad news for the Redskins is that, coming into this game, the Giants and the Redskins had looked like very similar teams. Now they don't. And mere emotion couldn't explain the sizeable difference between them. A solid effort can stop a team that is surging on emotion -- and that is what the Redskins did not put forth.
The Giants, on the other hand, did what really good teams do. They played their biggest, and most unified and cohesive game of the season on a day when it counted. When Coach Joe Gibbs was asked whether emotion over the loss of Mara had played a role, he didn't have the heart to use it as an excuse. Too much had happened to write it off to sentiment.
"It's hard to say what it was," Gibbs said. "A lot of it was us, and a lot of it was them playing really hard. I certainly don't think we matched them across the board, at anything."