EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. -- Their competition in the NFC East had staggered back to life in zombie form, leaving the New York Giants in a most vulnerable state, leaving them to search for their true identity somewhere amid a rainy, London-like fog.
Just before the Giants faced their tormentor, Drew Brees, Dallas and Washington completed their comeback victories over Cincinnati and Baltimore with dramatic field goals that came all of three minutes apart. After spending most of Sunday afternoon thinking they would retain control of the division win, lose or draw, the Giants suddenly saw their margin for error reduced to the size of a referee's whistle.
Maybe this would be the day they surrendered to human nature. Maybe this would be the day they cracked and listened to that little voice within reminding them that they'd won it all last year, and that failing to do so this year wouldn't amount to a felony in anyone's book.
Eli Manning's big brother, Peyton, called it the pass. As soon as Peyton won his liberating Super Bowl ring, he warned reporters that he didn't want the pass the following season. He didn't want anyone accepting substandard play because, you know, he'd already won the big one and deserved the benefit of the doubt.
Tom Coughlin has been coaching against the pass all season, coaching against human nature. He already knew how tough it was to repeat as champs since he tried and failed to pull it off in 2008, when Plaxico Burress blew a hole in his leg and blew up his team's two-peat plans.
"All it took," Coughlin would say in August, "was one selfish act." The coach called his 11-1 Giants of 2008 "the best team in football," a team that ultimately would go one-and-done in the playoffs.
Hey, there's a reason the Giants have never gone back-to-back; it's an awfully difficult thing to do. Burress can't screw it up this time, but before they faced the New Orleans Saints at MetLife Stadium, the Giants he left behind might've looked capable of screwing things up on their own.
Brees walked into the building 4-0 against the Giants, 3-0 as a Saint. He had dropped 49 points on them in the Superdome last year, and even in this lost, scandal-ridden season Brees appeared capable of cracking 40 on them one more time.
But this game wasn't played at room temperature indoors. It was played in Giants weather and, as it turned out, on the Giants' terms. The Saints returned a wayward Eli Manning pass 73 yards for a touchdown and an early 7-0 lead, and that only served to harden the home team's resolve.
The Giants were about to get started on a 52-27 rout, on their highest-scoring game in more than a quarter century. David Wilson was the one who gathered the ensuing kickoff. Wilson is a rookie so fast, Victor Cruz said, "if you blink once or twice you might miss him."
The Saints blinked once, twice, three times, and Wilson was on his way to a 97-yard touchdown return that would throw open the door to an historic day, a day that would see him amass 227 yards on four kick returns, and 100 rushing yards and two touchdowns on 13 carries.
The Giants have been in the business of pro football since 1925, and no man in their colors had ever covered 327 yards in a single game.
"It was nothing I didn't expect of him," Chanston Rodgers, Wilson's position coach at George Washington High in Danville, Va., said by phone. "Once he got that first touchdown on the return I knew he was going to have a big day. It was the way he was running, and how he was aggressively reading the holes."
Rodgers texts Wilson once or twice every week. He was the one who ordered Wilson to run through a George Washington ball-security drill after the first-round pick out of Virginia Tech fumbled his way onto Coughlin's bench during the opening night loss to Dallas.
The drill was called odd-ball, and it required the runner to tuck a ball in each arm and under his chin while kneeling down every five yards -- without either ball popping loose -- over the course of a 100-yard sprint. "I was only joking when I texted him that," Rodgers told ESPNNewYork.com on Sunday night, "because of the seriousness of the situation. David was really broken up, and I was just trying to lighten him up."
Wilson was near tears on the Giants' sideline, in fact. The experience inspired him to run the odd-ball drill in the team facility, over and over, while teammates were out and about during their precious time off.
"I kept telling him to be patient, that he would get his opportunity," said Rodgers, who watched the game in his Virginia home. "I told him, 'You can't teach speed like yours. All it takes is one hole, and you're off to the races.'
"And I told him something else: 'Don't fumble when you get your chance.'"
Wilson didn't fumble Sunday, even when he stretched the ball across the goal line on his first rushing score. He had fallen asleep the night before watching ESPN's "30 for 30" feature on Bo Jackson, and woke up in time to deliver a performance out of Bo's wildest dreams.
But this wasn't only about the 32nd selection of the first round playing like the No. 1 overall pick, a kid who punctuated his scores by doing back flips in the end zone. This was about Antrel Rolle walking his talk, about Stevie Brown's two interceptions, and about a Giants unit honoring Jason Pierre-Paul's claim that defending the Saints' conventional passing attack would be "much easier" than defending Robert Griffin III and the option-running Griffinettes.
This was also about Manning, who beat Brees for the first time by throwing touchdown passes to four different receivers.
"He's cold-blooded," Chris Canty said. "We call him the baby-faced killer."
So the Giants upgraded their record to 8-5, protected their one-game lead in the NFC East, and provided some evidence that they'll end up just where Rolle said they would. The Giants will fight to the end, the safety promised, "and we will be the last team standing."
Coughlin didn't sound quite as bold last week when he called for his team to run the table over its final four games. But now his Giants are 1-0 in that pursuit, a contender emboldened by its resounding response to the threats posed early Sunday by Washington and Dallas.
None of this means the Giants are going to win back-to-back championships for the first time in franchise history. It only means they appear ready to give it a hell of a shot.