The stadium that Giants quarterback Eli Manning surveyed with three and a half minutes left Saturday against the Pittsburgh Steelers had grown supportive around him. Sure, thousands of Pittsburgh fans were still waving little gold towels, many having bought their tickets from disgusted Giants fans, and plenty of doubts circulated among Giants fans forming the rest of the crowd of 78,836.
But for a surprising moment, the Giants were giving them a reason to cheer, a spunky team in a close game against one of the best teams in the NFL, threatening the Steelers' 3-point lead at the Giants' 44-yard line.
On third-and-2, Manning let fly a pass that soared toward Amani Toomer, only to have the last flame of hope snuffed out. Steelers cornerback Willie Williams got tangled with Toomer, and Toomer fell down. Williams caught the ball -- whether it should have been called pass interference was worthy of debate -- sealing the Steelers' 33-30 victory.
"I would have liked to have seen a call, believe me," Manning said. "Those are the things that are the difference in the team that's won five games and a team that's won 12 games. They just made the plays. It's a tough way to lose."
The Giants have plenty of experience finding ways to lose, having dropped seven in a row to slide to 5-9. The Steelers have become well acquainted with different ways to win, a versatility well illustrated in their 12-1 record.
"This was a gutsy win for our football team," Steelers coach Bill Cowher said, giving a nod to the Giants' effort. "Those guys played hard. Their quarterback, you knew he was going to come out of it. He did what we figured all week."
Considering the records, Cowher may have been the only one outside the Manning family circle that was figuring on that. The Steelers still have much to play hard for; they are fighting for home-field advantage in the American Football Conference playoffs.
The Giants are playing for little more than salvaging a shred of pride.
Yet it was a fight, from the opening moments to the sight of Williams running away with Manning's last pass.
"I felt we were going to win this game," Manning said. "Coming in, I had a good feeling, a better feeling than we've had. I don't know why, going against one of the best defenses in the league. At the end of the game, I thought we had the momentum, that we were going to get something done."
Certainly there was no evidence of that in the Giants' previous two losses. But coach Tom Coughlin walked into the team's Friday night meeting and told them he believed.
Forget that the Steelers' defense ranked in the top echelon of the NFL and that the Giants' offense could barely get out of its own way, he told them. Forget all the accolades being thrown at an offense directed by a quarterback, Ben Roethlisberger, living the flip side of Manning's rookie nightmare. Coughlin wanted them to ignore the statistics and the suspicions that the Giants had given the season up for dead and believe for no reason at all.
Strangely enough, it worked.
Shortly after the Giants trotted onto their home field to a round of boos by early-arriving Steelers fans, the Giants jump-started their chances. Willie Ponder, who lined up to return the kick only because Derrick Ward was injured last Sunday, raced downfield through a big hole, then cut toward the right sideline. He eluded one last desperate dive by Troy Polamalu and sailed 91 yards for a touchdown and a 7-0 lead 15 seconds into the game.