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Out of the Blue

The Giants, with their unwanted quarterback, and their unhappy defense, and their injured cornerback, in the Super Bowl? We must be dreaming.

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He is riding in the back of a limo because he is a star. He is a star quarterback in New York City, barely 36 hours removed from one of the greatest passing performances in NFL playoff history, even if he is currently riding across the potholed two-lane highways of Bergen County, even if he'd much rather be in a pickup truck. He is riding in a 30-foot white stretch limo because it has been dispatched by the Milk Board to whisk him to one of those signposts of modern American megajock achievement, being photographed for a milk-mustache ad. A beautiful, long-legged brunette steel magnolia of a girlfriend is sitting next to him.

This is all as it should be. He is also riding in the back of a limo because he couldn't drive himself to the photo shoot even if he wanted to. Kerry Collins, 28, who has just driven the New York Giants into their first Super Bowl in ten years, has no driver's license. He lost it last year, the penalty for a drunk-driving conviction.

Because Collins is smarter, much smarter, than he appears from his lunkish looks, he appreciates the irony in all this. A man who was plastered all over the news for drinking too much is about to appear all over the country drinking milk. The DWI arrest was the last curl in a rapid downward spiral that saw him hit a kind of dirtbag trifecta: Collins was tagged a drunk, a racist, and a quitter. As a football commodity, Collins was radioactive. The Giants gave him a second chance, but what did they have to lose? Kent Graham was their starting quarterback at the time. And the Giants were supposed to be lousy again this season.

Now Collins is on the verge of a world championship. He is the poster boy for the redemptive power of sports and sobriety. His enormous, unblinking eyes, as clear and blue as a glacier-fed stream, stare straight ahead. Crystal bottles in the limo's wet bar jingle as the car crunches through another asphalt crater. "Who," Collins asks, a smile slowly creasing his face, "woulda thunk it?"

They might be the Giants, but they landed in Tampa this week to face the Baltimore Ravens in Super Bowl XXXV as the product of lilliputian expectations. The Washington Redskins, spending millions of Daniel Snyder's direct-marketing dollars, had signed all the flashy names during the off-season -- Deion Sanders, Bruce Smith, Jeff George -- and Las Vegas gave them the short odds to win the Super Bowl. The Giants? They'd signed a couple of retread defensive backs and ancient offensive linemen. The experts made them 55-1 shots.

"Jason's an incredible athlete with a flair for the stage. The bigger the game, the bigger the play."

Internally, there was more optimism, but no bold wagers on late-January glory. The Giants have seized an opportunity built on a foundation of months of hard work and steady improvement. The NFL's parity formula certainly helped. But luck (no major injuries) and magic are in the mix, too. "This thing -- leadership, teams coming together, chemistry -- it's a mystical, intangible thing," says Giants general manager Ernie Accorsi. "I'm convinced that circumstances and how you react are much more the catalyst than 'I've got this plan.' "

Sean Payton, the boy-genius offensive coordinator, spends hundreds of hours each week watching film of opponents, charting tendencies, calculating the best chance for the Giants' offense to score. He's a rational guy, deep into dissecting the vaunted Baltimore Ravens defense, but there's one factor he can't explain about his own team. "Every year, you could talk to the teams that went to the Super Bowl, and they can't put their hand on it, but it's kind of 'it,' " Payton says. "And right now, we have a little bit of that 'it.' "

The Sunday-night crowd in the second-floor dining room at Smith & Wollensky is far too sophisticated, of course, to stand up, cheer, and thrust high fives as Jason Sehorn strides in. Yet an undeniable electric charge, a happy murmur, courses through the room as Sehorn, the 29-year-old "It" boy of New York sports, makes his way to his regular table. An eddy of congratulations and encouragement follows the beaming Sehorn: Attaboy . . . beautiful game . . . one more to go! Danny, Sehorn's favorite waiter, arrives to take the order. He already knows that Sehorn wants the prime rib or the T-bone, whichever is larger tonight. Diners make their way over to shake hands with the most glamorous player on the freshly crowned conference champs. "I come here all the time, especially after games," Sehorn says. "Well, especially after wins."

He laughs and looks across at his fiancée, Angie Harmon, the star of Law & Order, the best TV show filmed in New York. This week, she'll be shooting an episode based on the murder trial of Rae Carruth, the former Carolina Panthers receiver -- whom Sehorn, as a cornerback, has battled on the field. "People write songs about New York," Harmon says. "Living here with Jason in this moment, it's like we're standing next to the cherry on top instead of just kinda being down in the cake mix."


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