Championship teams rarely beat themselves.
"Turnovers, mistakes and penalties at the wrong time, they can have a tremendous determination on the outcome of each game," New York Giant Coach Bill Parcells said Wednesday. It's especially true of the Giants' two most recent games against the Los Angeles Rams, the Giants' opponent in Sunday's divisional playoff at Giants Stadium.
Yes, the Rams have an explosive offense that averages 377 yards a game, blending excellent receivers with a capable running game. The offensive line might be the best in football, and quarterback Jim Everett is one of the league's bright young stars.
But the primary reasons for the Rams' 45-31 victory last season and their 31-10 win in November have more to do with poor play by the Giants than the offensive might of the Rams.
--In the Rams' victory at Giants Stadium last season, 35 of their points were set up by Giants mistakes--two fumbles and an interception deep in Giants territory and a special-teams breakdown that allowed a 44-yard kickoff return by Gaston Green that positioned the Rams for another score. For their first three scores, the Rams had to drive a total of 65 yards.
--The Giants put themselves in a deep hole on Nov. 12 in Anaheim, when they gave up 14 points in a span of 14 seconds late in the second quarter. Wide receiver Aaron Cox was open for a 51-yard scoring pass from Everett because safety Myron Guyton slipped on the slick grass and couldn't provide deep coverage. Cox's TD made it 17-3 Rams, and it was 24-3 seconds later. David Meggett fumbled the ensuing kickoff at his 21-yard line and Everett made it hurt by throwing a TD pass to Flipper Anderson on the next play.
Conclusion: Over the past two games, errors by the Giants have helped set up 49 of the Rams' 76 points.
"It's the mark of a good team when they take advantage of those things," Giant defensive coordinator Bill Belichick said. "They're a talented offense anyway, and when you give them a short field to work with, they only need a couple of first downs and they're in the end zone."
Everett said the Rams have been fortunate to get the breaks in their last two games with the Giants. "It's been one of those things that don't happen very much," he said. "I have a lot of respect for the Giants. They're a very sound group. If anything, we just got lucky on a few of those things. That's the way the game goes. I expect them to be very sound on Sunday, and I expect it to be a tough ballgame."
Lately, turnovers and mistakes haven't been a problem for the Giants. In fact, their ability to minimize them is a key reason why they finished the regular season with wins over the Denver Broncos, Dallas Cowboys and Raiders.
In those three games, the Giants committed only one turnover, a Meggett fumble on a punt return against the Raiders. Phil Simms didn't throw an interception in that span, and the Giants have recovered four of the five balls they've dropped. This improvement came after a two-game stretch in which the Giants committed 10 turnovers, leading to 38 points by the San Francisco 49ers and the Eagles.
When asked about his team's improved protection of the ball, Parcells said, "I told them if they kept fumbling, I was going to cut them." It's not clear whether he was joking.
Bjorn Nittmo may not be a household name in the United States, but in his native land of Sweden, the New York Giants' place-kicker has become something of a national hero.
Erik Hermans, sports editor of the New York-based Swedish News, compares the interest in Nittmo to Ingemar Johansson's knockout against Floyd Patterson and Bjorn Borg's ascension in tennis.
"Nittmo is big news in Sweden," Hermans said Thursday. "All of the major papers have written something about him. He's probably one of the most famous people we have right now. The impression you get from the Swedish newspapers is that everybody in America is watching him."
Since taking over the kicking duties when Raul Allegre was injured in Week 11, Nittmo has obliged a parade of Swedish reporters and camera crews who have documented his story. Nittmo got his initial chance in training camp last July when he showed enough potential to become a member of the six-man developmental squad at the start of the season. When Allegre pulled his groin during the Wednesday practice before the Seattle game Nov. 19, Nittmo was activated.
"I've done about 10 to 15 interviews," Nittmo said. "It's always big news (in Sweden) when you make it over here in the States because the competition is so tough. Everybody thinks I'm a millionaire, though, but I'm not, not by a long shot."
Nittmo, 23, may or may not be the Giants' kicker in the divisional playoff game against the Rams Sunday. Allegre is eligible to be activated off injured reserve, and Coach Bill Parcells said he'll wait until Friday afternoon before deciding if he's going to make a switch. If the veteran Allegre gets the nod, Nittmo will likely be put on waivers or injured reserve and won't be eligible for the playoffs.
"I don't know what's going to happen," Nittmo said. "I'm just waiting like everybody else. But it would be nice to know, though."
Nittmo has kicked well, making nine of 12 field-goal attempts, but he hasn't made one longer than 39 yards (he's missed two from 47) and hasn't had to attempt a game-deciding kick.
If Parcells decides to use Allegre, Nittmo has no regrets. He's gotten a lot of exposure, including an appearance on "Late Night With David Letterman," where he was introduced as the only Bjorn Nittmo in the New Jersey telephone book.
"I've been watching (Letterman) since I was in college," said Nittmo, who was on the show last Friday night. "It was pretty fun. I like his type of humor. It's sarcastic. To be playing six weeks and then top it off by being in the Letterman show, it's been something."
Born in Lund, Sweden, Nittmo came to the United States as an exchange student attending Enterprise High School in Enterprise, Ala. The first football game he ever saw was the first one he played in. He later attended Appalachian State and married the athletic director's daughter. Their home is in Boone, N.C., hence Nittmo has more of a Southern accent than one that sounds Swedish.
"It doesn't matter how long he's been away from Sweden," Hermans said. "He's a Scandinavian, and there aren't many of them over here in sports. Most are in the NHL. Scandinavians take a lot of pride in someone who does well here."
With that, they have reason to take pride in Nittmo.