Giants follow young fan's orders, win
Adam Merchant sat at Justin Tuck’s locker late Sunday night, surrounded by reporters after the New York Giants’ 38-10 win over the Green Bay Packers. He wore a Jason Pierre-Paul jersey, a Giants ski cap, a pair of team logo pajama pants and an ear-to-ear grin.
You’d have been smiling, too, if you’d had the weekend he just did.
Just eight months after being diagnosed with Burkitt’s lymphoma, Merchant, a 15-year-old from Barre, Vt., and his family arrived in New York on Thursday. The trip was arranged through the Make-A-Wish Foundation; Adam’s only desire was to go see his favorite team, the Giants, play football.
Friday afternoon, Adam attended the team’s practice in East Rutherford, and after the workout ended, the cherub-faced superfan assembled the team on the field. He had a message he wanted to impart to his beloved Giants, losers of two straight coming into Sunday’s game: “Play like world champions.”
“It came from the heart,” Merchant said. “They freaked out. They started hooting and hollering.”
And then the Giants came out on Sunday and did as they were told.
After a bye week to recuperate from losses to Pittsburgh and Cincinnati — and after two straight Washington Redskins victories to instill a sense of urgency in the New York locker room — Eli Manning’s reportedly tired arm didn’t look so tired anymore against the Packers. He completed 16 of 30 passes for 249 yards and three touchdowns, passing Phil Simms to become the Giants’ all-time record holder for passing touchdowns.
The Giants’ running backs rediscovered their groove as well, racking up 147 yards as the offensive line opened more holes than they’d seen in weeks. The 147 yards were New York’s highest rushing total since Oct. 14 against San Francisco — though the team did learn after the game that backup Andre Brown broke his fibula midway through the fourth quarter.
On the defensive side of the ball, the rejuvenated New York front line made life miserable for Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers, sacking him five times and bringing back memories of Seattle’s win over Green Bay in Week 3. The Giants also held the Packers, who looked virtually unbeatable during a five-game winning streak coming in, to a season low in points. Green Bay still controls its own destiny in the NFC North, but the Pack looked pedestrian as they dropped to 7-4.
“You win five in a row and everybody’s happy, but there’s often things … that kind of go under the radar that need to be handled,” Rodgers said after going 14 of 25 for 219 yards. “Sometimes it takes a loss to handle those things. … I’ve never been on this side of this kind of loss before, but I know that if you play long enough, at some point you will. Hopefully we remember this feeling and not let this kind of embarrassment happen again.”
On the New York sideline, the Giants also showed more energy than they had in recent weeks, and came out fired up. At no time was that more evident than in the first quarter when Manning, facing third-and-7 from the Green Bay 34-yard line, scrambled 13 yards for a first down, lowering his shoulder into Packers cornerback Tramon Williams instead of sliding at the end of the play.
Three plays later, Eli broke a 7-7 tie with a 16-yard touchdown pass to rookie wide receiver Rueben Randle, the first of Randle’s career, and New York led the rest of the way.
“It sparked our sideline, that’s for sure,” Giants coach Tom Coughlin said of Manning’s scramble. “That wouldn’t be recommended on a normal basis, but in that case, to see him do that, I think, sent a message to the rest of our team, as well, in terms of whatever you have to do to succeed, do it.”
As a result of the Giants’ most recent November skid — New York was 12-21 in November during the Eli Manning era coming in — Sunday’s game had become a must-win, and they played it as such.
With a loss, New York’s cushion on Washington and Dallas in the NFC East would have been whittled to just one game with five to play. Instead, the Giants will take a two-game division lead into next Monday’s critical road showdown with the Redskins, and would put themselves in the driver’s seat with a victory.
“You could easily come in and falter and be lackadaisical, but we came out firing and understood this was a game we needed to win, and you could see it in the way we played,” said Giants wide receiver Victor Cruz, who had three catches for 36 yards and a touchdown. “We played with passion (and) integrity, and it really came out.”
As for the Giants’ special guest, Adam and his family will head back to Vermont on Monday, but the Giants hope a little bit of his spirit stays behind as they forge ahead through the rest of their schedule — and it can’t hurt with a tough home contest against New Orleans and road trips against Atlanta and Baltimore still to play.
There’s no way of knowing what the future holds for the Giants, but on Sunday they played like world champions — just like Adam told them to. And if they reach the Super Bowl, Adam, who is currently in remission, says he’s always available to make a return trip.
“That’s kind of humbling, the fact that a kid’s only wish was to come see us play,” Tuck said. “And when he stepped out and we gave him the floor, and he just told us we needed to go out there and play like champions, it kind of hit home.
“It was so profound, because certain people can tell you that, but when you see an innocent kid telling you that you need to play like a champion — I told him he needed to go into motivational speaking, because he kind of woke us up a little bit.”