In the beginning, Phil Simms had no idea what came next. Not from the new coach who arrived under a cloud of suspicion. Not from a team that had retreated posthaste from contender to also-ran. Not even from himself, in this, his 15th NFL season.

When training camp rolled around last summer for the New York Giants, Simms was as much in the dark as anyone else. Was Dan Reeves as bad as the Denver Broncos said? Were the Giants a franchise in terminal decay? Could Simms, at 38, still march a team down the field in crunch time to win?

Fast forward to Sunday's showdown between the Giants and the Dallas Cowboys at the Meadowlands to get the answers: no, no and yes.

The fact the Giants, at 11-4, are playing the Cowboys, also 11-4, for the NFC East title and home-field advantage in the playoffs is one of the most remarkable stories of this NFL season.

"This year is so different from any season I've ever had," Simms said on a conference call yesterday. "I can't even compare it to any season. Everything's so different with all the new players and new staff. All the plays and terminology are so different.

"I always knew what kind of team we had going into training camp. This year, going in, I had no idea if it was a 5-11 team or 11-5. I just had no idea. I think that's what made it so enjoyable."

The Giants are almost a touchdown underdog to Dallas, and a loss would close their regular season at 11-5. But for the first time in three years, they've got a big game in January and a playoff date after that. Simms can appreciate the turnaround better than almost any other Giant.

For the past two seasons, he had been little more than a spare part in a machine he had helped build. The previous Giants coach, Ray Handley, had turned Simms into a backup behind Jeff Hostetler. Simms, who has started every game this season, started a total of eight the previous two seasons.

Now in the twilight of a career that has been persistently good, but rarely spectacular, Simms is showing that the gas gauge wasn't empty after all.

"It was rough in '91," he said. "You don't know how much you miss things until it's taken away from you. I remember standing on the sidelines in '91 and thinking how much I missed it. In '92, it turned around, and I ended up with the job. I realized I like this a lot."

But an elbow injury ended his 1992 season after four games. That gave him time to ponder the alternatives.

"I always came to the same conclusion," he said. "I like playing. I like being a starting quarterback. I'm willing to do anything I can ,, to stay out there and be part of it."

He won't speculate on how much time he has left. But his 1993 performance has been one of quality and quantity. He has completed a career-best 61.6 percent of his passes, thrown for 15 touchdowns against nine interceptions, and ranks fourth in the NFL passer ratings behind Steve Young, Troy Aikman and John Elway.

It was enough to earn the second Pro Bowl invitation of his career. He has a record of 100-66 as a starter and last week moved into 11th place in the NFL in career passing yards with 33,255. His career touchdown count is 199.

His lasting fame, though, was for Super Bowl XXI, when he completed a record 22 of 25 passes in a 39-20 demolition of the Denver Broncos.

Perhaps it was fitting, then, that Reeves, who coached those Broncos, would give Simms a new start with these Giants. Shortly after Handley was fired and Reeves got the job, he named Simms his starter.

Reeves turned out to be another surprise for the Giants, who had expected something different from the coach they got.

"I think the preconceived notion before he came was, 'Wow, this guy will be extremely strict and drive us and not cut us any slack,' " Simms said. "That's not the case. He knows when to get off us and when to lean on us. The atmosphere has been upbeat."

Reeves not only gave Simms a new lease on life, but he also gave him the authority to free lance when he felt necessary. Unlike the days of playing under Bill Parcells, Simms has been encouraged to try for big plays that might be outside the game plan or playbook.

"That may be the most satisfying part of the season," Simms said. "I'm not afraid to go outside the system to make a play. The coaches keep reinforcing it to me, if it feels right, just do it. They trust me. That part of it is different. Under Parcells and other coaches I've had here, we've always tried to stay in the system."

The Giants will need some a bundle of big plays to beat the Cowboys. When the two teams met Nov. 7, a blitzing Dallas defense notched five sacks, held the Giants to three field goals and cruised to a 31-9 victory. Now, the Giants have a chance to show they've learned to handle the blitz, that they can handle the Cowboys. A Super Bowl berth may depend on it.

"Being on a team not expected to do much this year and getting in the position we are right now is all the motivation we could possibly dream up," Simms said. "It's a great situation for the team and for me."

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