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Cunningham, Giants _ Like Old Times

December 26, 1997

EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. (AP) _ Randall Cunningham is a quarterback who’ll always have a place in the hearts of New York Giants fans.

That’s rare for someone who has never played for the Giants. But Cunningham has always made football interesting for the fans.

Mention his name and most will groan and mention former linebacker Carl Banks. He had the misfortune of having Cunningham bounce off a tackle around his knees in a nationally televised game on Oct. 10, 1988, and then throw a touchdown pass in a 24-13 defeat of the Giants.

Then there was Cunningham’s 91-yard punt _ the third longest in NFL, on Dec. 3, 1989. Phil Simms turned the ball over a couple of plays later and, of course, the Eagles won.

Cunningham will return to Giants Stadium on Saturday, and he again will try to make Giants fans groan. This time he will do it as Minnesota’s starting quarterback when he tries to lead the Vikings (9-7) over the NFC East champion Giants (10-5-1) in an NFC wild-card game.

``The Giants fans have always been cool with me,″ Cunningham said. ``I never had any problems there. They always used to chant my name when I was in Philly. I always looked forward to that. I guess it might happen again in this game.″

In some ways though, this game will be different.

Cunningham is not the same quarterback. He sat out all of last season after being released by the Eagles. He was signed by the Vikings before the start of this season, but he didn’t move into the starting lineup until Brad Johnson suffered a neck injury in early December.

Cunningham has completed 44 of 88 passes for 501 yards, six touchdowns and four interceptions. He was 13-of-27 for 174 yards, four touchdowns and three interceptions in last week’s playoff-clinching 39-28 win over the Indianapolis Colts.

``I think he has played better each week,″ Vikings coach Dennis Green said of Cunningham. ``That really is the key thing. I think he’ll be better against the Giants than he was against the Colts.″

While he runs less than in the past, Cunningham says he can still surprise opponents.

``I’m basically the same player, just more mature,″ he said. ``If I want to run I am going to run. If I want to pull up and throw it, I’m going to hit some passes.″

Giants defensive coordinator John Fox said not only does Cunningham have two outstanding receivers to throw to in Cris Carter and Jake Reed, but he also has an excellent running back in Robert Smith, who gained 1,266 yards.

``With him and Randall Cunningham that’s always an added concern,″ Fox said. ``We’ve got to do a good job of mixing things up and the players have to be exact in their techniques and responsibilities.″

In the Giants’ favor, their defense has been among the best in the NFL in recent weeks, forcing 14 turnovers.

While this will be Cunningham’s sixth playoff game, it will be the first for Giants starter Danny Kanell.

``... It’s the next level,″ Kanell said. ``You just have to elevate your game.″

With the Giants, that doesn’t mean Kanell has to go out and win the game himself. Just the opposite, he has to play smart in a conservative run-oriented offense and make a couple of big passes when needed.

The key is not to commit turnovers to either give the Vikings easy scores or put the Giants’ defense in bad position.

Kanell, who took over as the starter after Dave Brown was hurt in early October, has completed 156 of 294 passes for 1,740 yards, 11 touchdowns and nine interceptions. New York is 8-2-1 in games decided when he was playing.

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