With time winding down on the Giants’ improbable bid to beat the 13-0 Broncos, Jim Fassel called the play into quarterback Kent Graham’s headset.
“Trips right, 24, double go, Roger,” the coach said.
Latest Giants stories
Then he added for emphasis. “Kent, just throw it to Amani. I don’t care what the coverage is. You and Amani play catch.”
And so began the sequence of events that stunned the football world on Dec. 13, 1998. With less than a minute to play and the Giants trailing 16-13 against the defending Super Bowl champions, Graham dropped back to pass, waited for Toomer to run a “go” route down the right side against Broncos cornerback Tito Paul, and then heaved the ball skyward.
As Paul reached for the ball and attempted to make what would have been a game-saving interception, Toomer leaped in front of him and snatched the ball away for the winning touchdown. That ended Denver’s attempt to become the first team since the 1972 Miami Dolphins to finish with an unbeaten record.
“I just remember thinking that put us back on the map,” Toomer said this past week, recalling his magical play. “I was so glad to score the touchdown, so glad to win the game, and it felt like we became relevant again. That’s when I knew we were building something.”
Seventeen years later, the Giants again will host a 13-0 team when the Panthers visit MetLife Stadium on Sunday, and Toomer sees some striking similarities.
“Very much so,” he said. “It’s an undefeated team and the Giants are fighting for relevancy, just like we were. If I’m in that locker room, I’m thinking this is a big opportunity. If you don’t look at this as an opportunity, then you’re in the wrong business.”
Toomer’s catch came near the end of Fassel’s second year as Giants coach, and there still were questions about the direction of the franchise. A year earlier, Fassel did a terrific job in getting the Giants to the playoffs in his first season. But Fassel got off to a 2-4 start in 1998, then fell to 3-7, and went into the Broncos game at 5-8.
“We go to the playoffs the year before, and the next year, we were basically irrelevant,” Toomer said. “We went from being a playoff team to being nothing. But that win over Denver was a springboard within our organization.”
Two years later, the Giants went to the Super Bowl for the first time since the 1990 season.
The Giants held Denver to three field goals and headed into the fourth quarter with a 10-9 lead. The Broncos went ahead 16-13 on Terrell Davis’ 27-yard touchdown run and had a chance to build on the lead later in the quarter.
With the Giants needing a defensive stop to get the ball back, linebacker Jessie Armstead sacked John Elway for a 2-yard loss but was called for being offside on the play. Armstead feared he had blown the game.
“I had to make a play,” Armstead, who now serves as a special assistant/consultant for the Giants, said in recalling the critical moment of the game. “I jumped offsides and I’m like, ‘What the heck?’ You got to make a play. And I did.”
On second-and-1 from the Broncos’ 38, Armstead stopped Davis for a 2-yard loss, and the Giants forced Denver to punt.
Toomer didn’t help matters when he lost 4 yards on the punt return.
“I come back to the sidelines, and Roman Oben is just staring at me after I lost yardage,” said Toomer, now an analyst on Giants’ television and radio broadcasts. “I’m like, ‘Oh, man. This is not good.’ ”
He soon made up for that mistake with one of the biggest plays of his career, sending the sellout crowd into a frenzy as the Giants pulled off the upset.
Fassel was reminded of the game a few months ago when he was going through some memorabilia in a storage garage.
“I’m going through all this stuff, and I see a Miami Dolphins jersey with a No. 1 on it and my name on the back,” Fassel said.
Former Dolphins coach Don Shula sent the jersey to Fassel as a token of gratitude for beating the Broncos and keeping the 1972 Dolphins as the only unbeaten Super Bowl championship team in NFL history.
Now it’s Tom Coughlin’s Giants who have the chance to hand another 13-0 team its first loss of the season. Like Fassel, Coughlin has chosen not to concentrate on the chance to ruin the Panthers’ perfect record, instead focusing on taking another huge step in their own quest to make the playoffs.
“I don’t think there’s anything about our preparation that’s different,” Coughlin said. “But it’s obviously exciting being involved in a game against a team of this ability.”
Defensive tackle Cullen Jenkins is more concerned with his own team.
“You think about [the unbeaten record] some, but I think the big thing on my mind is the position we’re in, being tied for first place in our division and needing to win more than anything,” Jenkins said. “We’re definitely the more desperate team and we need to go out there and play like it.”
“We better,” he said.
Toomer and Armstead like the home team’s chances.
“Knowing how well they played against New England earlier in the season when they had them on the ropes, they should have won,” Toomer said. “If you can keep up with the Patriots, you can beat the Panthers.”
Said Armstead: “I know if we can limit the mistakes and we fly to the ball, we’ll put ourselves in a good situation. Lay it on the line, every play. I’ll say this, if you understand history, it can teach you a lot. History repeats itself.”
Seventeen years after Armstead was part of beating another 13-0 team, he’s hoping that’s again the case.