Ugly win a thing of Big Blue beauty

EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. -- This looked more like a preseason exhibition staged in October, or a sandlot game played by weekend warriors in pads, and it did not matter to the winning team that football fans everywhere were grossed out by the performance.

The New York Giants were ready to hang this one in the Louvre, anyway.

Winning ugly? There's no such thing to an 0-6 NFL team so desperate to win a game before the start of the World Series that it trotted out Mariano Rivera in an Eli Manning jersey, trotted him out under that ever-familiar Metallica beat and that ever-familiar roar of the local crowd, and hoped the closer's can-do aura would make a difference at the coin toss.

The Giants lost that toss to the Minnesota Vikings -- of course they did -- and seemed primed to lose the game, too. On cue Monday night, Manning started throwing it toward the wrong jerseys, and the Giants allowed Marcus Sherels to return a punt 86 yards for a touchdown while, incredibly enough, committing two penalties as Sherels zigged through their zags.

That return, Tom Coughlin said, "drove us all crazy." And, man, did things look bad at the end of the first quarter, Minnesota up by a 7-3 count. If the Giants entered MetLife Stadium as the best 0-6 team in creation, courtesy of the two Super Bowls won by the Manning-Coughlin-Justin Tuck core, the Vikings entered as the worst 1-4 team you'd ever want to see.

They were suiting up their third starting quarterback of the year, Josh Freeman, a guy recently fired by the winless Tampa Bay Bucs. No way the Giants could fall to these Vikes, not at home, not before a national ESPN audience, not after a 10-day layoff, and not while the neighboring 4-3 Jets were coming across as a model of competence and stability in comparison.

The Giants just couldn't let this happen, just couldn't. And as much as Manning tried to continue throwing the kind of interceptions that nearly left him in tears in Chicago after Defeat No. 6, as much as the Giants tried to go 0-for-7, the Vikings just wouldn't let them.

Their defensive backs couldn't haul in any of Eli's wayward throws, including a certain pick-six-to-be dropped in the third quarter, and their coaches weren't any better. Somehow, some way, Leslie Frazier and his offensive coordinator, Bill Musgrave, decided the surest path to victory was to virtually ignore Adrian Peterson, only last year's league MVP, and to put the game in the hands of Freeman, a quarterback who hadn't played in a month and who had never played in Minnesota's system.

Peterson was allowed 13 carries, or five fewer than the Giants allowed Peyton Hillis, just signed off the street. Meanwhile, Minnesota had Freeman heaving pass after futile pass downfield, leaving the quarterback with an absurd 53 attempts in all, 33 of them missing their mark.

Were the Giants surprised that the Vikings showcased (or tried to) Freeman over the best player in football? "A little bit, a little bit," Tuck said, "especially with Josh just being there a couple of weeks. We were really prepared to see a lot of 28."

No. 28 finished with 28 rushing yards, and yes, the Giants' defensive front deserved its fair share of credit for that. Only this game was about what players couldn't do, not what they could do.

Manning hit Rueben Randle for a 24-yard touchdown in the second quarter, but even that pass was underthrown and could've been intercepted by an alert defender.

As the night wore on, it seemed a shame someone had to win this game. Minnesota would prove to be the far weaker side, fumbling away punts and kickoffs, and soon enough the Giants were in their locker room searching for party hats and kazoos.

"Everybody was excited," Victor Cruz said. "Everybody was yelling, raving. The coaches had a smile on their faces. Everybody feels good. It's what we've been missing."

The Giants hadn't won a game, any game, since beating Pittsburgh in their preseason opener on Aug. 10.

"It's one of those, 'Oh, this is what it feels like, huh?'" Coughlin said.

The coach went on about his defense, about Eli's (alleged) superior vision, and there was no point in stopping him. No point in trying to convince the old man that this was a really bad football game defined by some really bad Minnesota coaching and playing.

"I sure do feel good winning," Coughlin said.

And why not? After building Hall-of-Fame candidacies at the expense of Bill Belichick and Tom Brady, Coughlin and Manning had landed together with a thud in a dark and lonely place. They were humiliated by the 0-6 start, overwhelmed by it, and so neither man could be asked to apologize for the circumstances of their first W.

"It's good to be smiling and have a little excitement in the locker room afterward," Manning said.

His best receiver saw it coming, too.

"All week long in practice," Cruz said, "everybody was in a great mood, just upbeat. Everybody was feeling like this was the one for us, this was the week for us, on the big stage on Monday night.

"And what better way, what better fashion to get our first win, than on the main stage, the biggest stage."

So who cares if the Giants weren't entirely ready for the prime-time lights? They found an opponent less competent than they are, and seized the opportunity.

When it was over, Coughlin and Eli and Tuck -- three desperate men -- looked like they had beaten Belichick and Brady in a third Super Bowl. The Giants had gotten on the board before a World Series pitch was thrown, wouldn't you know it.

Winning ugly, really ugly, had never felt so good.