A game of inches and yards was reduced to a matter of minutes and hours. The New York Giants flew all night from San Francisco to arrive in Tampa at 2:30 a.m., three-quarters of a day before the Buffalo Bills made a much shorter trip from their home sweet home.
Super Bowl XXV was still nearly a week away, and the underdog Giants had already put the first points on the board. "You always try to have an edge," Tom Coughlin said, "and we thought getting there first gave us a little bit of an edge."
Coughlin was the wide receivers coach on a Bill Parcells staff among the greatest ever assembled, a staff of future and past NFL and major college head coaches that 20 years ago Thursday built what was the greatest night in Giants history, a moment that stood alone in time until Coughlin beat his former colleague, Bill Belichick, and his 18-0 Patriots three years ago.
It started with that cross-country flight from the NFC Championship Game, maybe the most fun any team's ever had at 30,000 feet. "We had a couple of cold ones," Parcells recalled. "Yes sir, we did.
"The players were having a good time, music was playing. For a lot of people on that plane, I think it was the most euphoric time we ever had."
The Giants had just beaten the dynastic 49ers of Joe Montana and Jerry Rice, denying them a shot at winning three consecutive Super Bowls. The Giants didn't even score a touchdown; they prevailed on a Leonard Marshall knockout of Montana, a Lawrence Taylor recovery of a Roger Craig fumble and five field goals from Matt Bahr, including one at the gun.
Before the trip to San Francisco, Parcells had ordered his team to pack for 10 days because, he said, "We're not coming home." On the delirious flight to Tampa, several players told Parcells that sole instruction gave them a renewed sense of faith.
The Giants were in their Hyatt Regency Westshore beds at 4 a.m., before some 49ers employees sent to Tampa ahead of time had even cleared out. Parcells and his aides were up three hours later to begin working on the game plan.
The no-huddling, fast-breaking Bills landed around 8 p.m., and their head coach, Marv Levy, was so busy trying to catch up on his own game plan, he failed to show for his mandatory Media Day news conference on Tuesday, enraging NFL officials and encouraging Giants officials at the same time.
The Bills might've been heavily favored, but they were already behind.
Buffalo had defeated the Giants 17-13 in December, and Phil Simms went down in that game with a broken foot. Parcells would have to win his second championship with Jeff Hostetler at quarterback. "And nobody really gave us a chance," Parcells said.
"But I believe there's always a way to win games like these; that's how I was brought up in coaching. You've got to figure out a way to give your team a chance to be successful. One way is to let their talent flourish, and the other way is to give them a plan to inhibit the other team's talent from flourishing."
The Giants chose Door No. 2 -- a strategy to keep the Bills' home-run hitters in the ballpark. Parcells thought he'd learned a lot about Buffalo in the regular-season loss, and in the Giants' running-game success that shaped a preseason victory, even though it was, you know, the preseason.
Parcells wanted to keep Jim Kelly and Andre Reed and Thurman Thomas off the field with long, time-consuming drives. Belichick gathered his defensive players in a conference room and told them their league-leading unit (only 211 points allowed) would defeat Buffalo's league-leading offense (428 points scored) by dropping as many as eight and nine Giants into coverage and forcing the Bills to run the ball.
"We want Thurman Thomas to run for over 100 yards," Belichick told his defense. "I guarantee you we're going to win. I will quit this business if Thurman Thomas runs for over 100 yards and we lose."
Belichick was the leading candidate to land the Cleveland Browns job, and Coughlin had already agreed to take over at Boston College. But a Giants staff that also included former NFL head coach Ron Erhardt, future NFL head coaches Romeo Crennel, Al Groh and Ray Handley, and future Notre Dame head coach Charlie Weis wouldn't be distracted from its goal of winning the weeklong chess match.
On the game night of Jan. 27, 1991, with America at war in the Persian Gulf, "I remember looking at a helicopter gunship hovering above the press box," Coughlin said. "You're at the greatest game in the world, you see armed soldiers to your right and left, and you have Whitney Houston singing the national anthem -- talk about goosebumps on top of goosebumps. I still have them talking about it now."
The game unfolded according to the Giants' script. With Buffalo leading 12-10 at the start of the second half, Giants receiver Mark Ingram broke five tackles to gain 14 yards on a third-and-13 ("The greatest non-scoring play in Super Bowl history," Coughlin told Ingram later), keeping alive a 14-play, 75-yard TD drive that bled nearly 10 minutes from the clock.
Thomas would score on a 31-yard run, and the Giants would answer by covering 74 yards on 13 plays and regaining the lead, 20-19, on a Bahr field goal. Everson Walls made a game-saving open-field tackle on Thomas in the closing minutes, and with eight seconds left Buffalo's Scott Norwood lined up from 47 yards out to determine the winner and the loser.
Upstairs in the owner's box, with Buffalo executives staring at her from an adjacent suite, Wellington Mara's wife, Ann, clutched her rosary beads and prayed for Norwood to miss.
Down on the sideline, Bahr approached Parcells. "Bill," the kicker said, "[Norwood] hasn't made one from 47 yards on grass all year. He's going to overkick it."
In other words, Norwood was going to be too fast through the ball and push it to the right.
"And that's exactly what he did," Parcells said.
The moment the ball sailed wide right, Coughlin and his fellow assistant coaches started shouting and jumping up and down in the press box. They raced into the elevator after Hostetler took a knee on the final snap, and one Buffalo assistant ended up stuck in there with the jubilant Giants staff.
"We were trying to be respectful to the poor guy," Coughlin said. "But we'd just won the Super Bowl."
Thomas had rushed for 135 yards and lost, just as Belichick had promised. The Giants held the ball for a grand sum of 40 minutes and 33 seconds, including 22 minutes in the second half.
"It would've been a shame if we didn't win that game," Parcells said, "because in my mind we really outplayed them most of the way. I never felt like we were lucky to win because [Norwood] missed that field goal. I'm not saying we were the best team forever, but I've always felt we were the best team that day."
In the winners' locker room, Lawrence Taylor kissed Parcells on the lips. Coughlin retreated to the trainer's room to call two of his Boston College recruits, including Pete Kendall, and he put LT on the phone with both. Mark Bavaro jokingly agreed to talk to the recruits on the condition they weren't also considering his old school, Notre Dame (both players signed with Coughlin).
The Giants partied on the second and third floors of their hotel that night, and Parcells recalled that his receivers coach muttered the expression "world [bleeping] champs" so often that he ensured Coughlin's souvenir Super Bowl blanket was graced by those very words.
The following morning, working on no sleep, Parcells tried to explain what it was like winning the only Super Bowl decided by a single point.
"It's better than sex," he said. "It's better than Christmas morning. It's like all the Christmas mornings you've had wrapped into one."
On the flight back to New Jersey, Coughlin had Parcells and the rest of the coaches and players sign his Super Bowl poster. Soon enough Parcells would resign, Coughlin would head to Boston College, Belichick would head to Cleveland, and Belichick's game plan would head to Canton and a place in the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
Twenty years later, Parcells and Coughlin stand as the only Giants head coaches to win a Super Bowl title, and Belichick stands as the only member of that 1990 staff to win three.
"When you win a championship together," Parcells said, "it's a blood kinship. Our bond with that group will never go away."
A warm thought on a cold, barren day on the New York football landscape.