U the Man

The emergence of end Osi Umenyiora has turned the Giants' defensive front into one of the league's most formidable units

Like every other NFC championship contender, the Giants have their flaws. Eli Manning is a terrific prospect but makes some Ryan Leaf--type throws, the secondary is green and placekicker Jay Feely is suddenly a mess. But one element of New York's game has been near perfect: The defensive front is pressuring the quarterback like no other Giants team since the mid-'80s. "I've been praying for this for sooooooo long," 13-year veteran defensive end Michael Strahan said on Sunday, after New York had whacked the Cowboys 17-10 to improve to 8-4 and move a game ahead of Dallas in the NFC East. "Finally, I'm not getting double-teamed every play. And when I am [doubled], I know we've got all these young guys, especially Osi, to clean up for me."

Osi--that's the magic name around the Giants these days. You might remember that 280-pound Nigerian defensive end Osi Umenyiora (OH-see YOU-men-yore-ah) was the player the Chargers asked for when New York and San Diego were working out the 2004 draft-day deal that would bring Manning to the Giants. New York G.M. Ernie Accorsi called the request for Umenyiora a deal-breaker, and the trade almost didn't happen. (San Diego finally relented, and New York got Manning for the Giants' first-round pick, quarterback Philip Rivers, plus first-, third- and fifth-round picks.)

Coming off the best game a defensive end had had in years against Seattle Pro Bowl tackle Walter Jones--eight tackles, two sacks, one forced fumble on Nov. 27--Umenyiora, 25, had become the Nigerian Nightmare heading into the Dallas game. The Cowboys were well aware that Strahan, on the left side, now had disruptive company on the other end of the line. Nevertheless, Umenyiora put on a stunning performance, playing right end in the regular 4-3, middle linebacker in some dime situations (opening a spot for another Giants rush end on the rise, rookie Justin Tuck) and even alongside Strahan on a couple of downs.

On Dallas's first series Umenyiora helped stop running back Julius Jones for a three-yard loss. On the second series he drove tackle Torrin Tucker into quarterback Drew Bledsoe, earning his NFC-best 11th sack. In the fourth quarter, with New York clinging to a 17-10 lead, Umenyiora wasn't fooled by a counter and dragged down Jones from behind, a yard shy of a first down. On the Cowboys' next series Umenyiora, in pass-coverage, tripped up tight end Jason Witten coming off the line, causing Bledsoe's pass to sail incomplete.

Umenyiora is one of the NFL's best--albeit least known--stories. He was born in London to Nigerian parents in 1980 and lived in England for seven years, before the family moved to Nigeria. When Osi was 14 his dad, a businessman who emphasized education, sent him to live with his older sister, Nkem, in Alabama, where she was attending Tuskegee. Umenyiora began playing football at Auburn (Ala.) High but was pressed to improve his schoolwork. "My sister and older brother [Ofor] made me quit football my senior year because my grades were slipping," says Umenyiora. Still, he had already shown enough to get a scholarship to Troy State, where he had 25 sacks and earned a business degree.

Umenyiora was a surprise second-round pick in '03, but by his second season he'd developed into the player that had made San Diego so covetous, leading the Giants in sacks (seven), fumble recoveries (four) and forced fumbles (three). Last spring and summer he worked extra hard on speed and stamina, to become quick enough to run around or through offensive tackles, as well as bull-rush them.

After Sunday's game he accepted a hug from former Giants linebacker Harry Carson. "You're just what I would have been if I'd played defensive end!" Carson told him. "You attack! I love that!" It's a popular sentiment among Giants fans.

K.C.'S LATEST WEAPON

Johnson Makes A Major Run

Here's an unlikely candidate for NFL MVP: Chiefs running back Larry Johnson. If Kansas City (8-4) can survive the rest of its schedule--at Dallas, at the Giants, home against San Diego and Cincinnati (combined record 32-16)--and make it to the postseason, rest assured Johnson will have been vital to the cause.

Facing AFC West leader Denver at Arrowhead Stadium on Sunday, the third-year back out of Penn State was bottled up by the league's best run defense through three quarters (16 carries for 50 yards). "[But] we kept at it," Johnson said afterward. "Those guys on the line wanted to pound them more and more, even when we were struggling." Though the Chiefs fell behind 27-24 early in the fourth quarter, they stuck with the run. And Johnson responded with the best quarter of his pro career: 90 yards on 14 carries, including a 30-yard sweep around left end in which he waited for his blocking and then cut back against the pursuit.

At 6'1", 230 pounds, the 2003 first-rounder can be a punishing runner inside and is shifty enough to make linebackers miss on the outside. Kansas City has won four of its last five games, and Johnson rushed for more than 100 yards in each game. Against the Raiders on Nov. 6, his 36-yard romp on the second-to-last play set up the winning touchdown. Two weeks later against the Texans, he rushed for a career-high 211 yards in a blowout victory.

For the Chiefs, an inconsistent club on defense, to get through the grueling final month, they'll need to play ball control. In Johnson, they have the guy to do it.

BOLDIN'S BIG DAY

A Matter Of Honor

As usual, the Cardinals are already out of the playoff picture, but at least wideout Anquan Boldin had a very good game--following a very bad one. On Nov. 27 he lost his composure during a 24-17 loss to Jacksonville, getting flagged for two costly personal fouls in the second half. Boldin was so embarrassed that he wrote a letter that ran in the Friday editions of two Phoenix-area papers, stating, "I apologize to all Cardinals fans, residents of Arizona, the Cardinals organization, the coaching staff and my teammates. I made a poor choice in my behavior."

On Sunday he redeemed himself. In the fourth quarter, with Arizona down 10-9, he took a short pass, broke a tackle and sprinted down the sideline for a 54-yard touchdown that won the game, 17-10. In all, Boldin had 156 yards on a career-high 11 catches--and no penalties. "I deal with kids on a regular basis," Boldin said last Saturday, explaining the letter. "I wanted them to know I did something wrong and please don't follow my example. Now I'm just going to work on being the best player I can be."

DISPATCHES

Cincy Not Welcome

Not only are the Bengals 5-1 on the road, but they also put up 37 points against Indianapolis, 42 against Baltimore and 38 against Pittsburgh, three teams in the top 10 in the NFL in total defense.... Chicago's Thomas Jones surpassed 1,000 rushing yards for the first time in his six seasons. The knock on Jones was that he wasn't quick or tough enough, but he's doing pretty well considering defenses dismiss the Bears' weak pass attack.... The league is considering floating the idea of putting speakers in offensive linemen's helmets so they can hear the snap count in noisy stadiums such as Indy's RCA Dome and Minnesota's Metrodome.

Bad News Browns

The misfortune that befell Cleveland wideout Braylon Edwards (right) on Sunday--a torn right ACL that ended his promising rookie season--is the latest in a litany of woes for the team's top draft picks. Edwards, No. 3 overall last April, had 32 catches but also missed two earlier games with an infection.

 

[This articel contains a table -- Please see hardcopy of magazine or PDF.]

Draft Player Pos. Overall pick
1999 Tim Couch QB 1st
Hampered by thumb, shoulder and arm injuries, record-setting collegian never lived up to billing; cut by Cleveland in June '04, he's out of football.
2000 Courtney Brown DE 1st
Missed 33 games in five seasons with foot, ankle, knee and biceps ailments; cut last March and now starting for Denver.
2001 Gerard Warren DT 3rd
After four lackluster seasons, was traded to Denver last April for fourth-round pick; like Brown, a starter on the league's third-best run defense.
2002 William Green RB 16th
Has had substance-abuse suspension and DUI conviction and was stabbed during Nov. '03 domestic altercation; Reuben Droughns's backup in '05.
2003 Jeff Faine C 21st
Instant starter, but ankle injuries cut short his 2003 and '04 seasons; healthy again, he has started every game this year.
2004 Kellen Winslow TE 6th
Broke right leg on kick coverage in Week 2 of last season and didn't return; '05 season wiped out when he tore ACL in motorcycle accident last May.

• Read more from Peter King at SI.com/football.

PHOTOAL TIELEMANS (UMENYIORA)  DOUBLE TROUBLE
Umenyiora, a lethal bundle of speed and power, leads the NFC with 11 sacks.
PHOTODAVID MAXWELL/GETTY IMAGES PHOTOBARRY TAYLOR/WIREIMAGE.COM (JOHNSON)  ON A ROLL
Johnson's string of five straight 100-yard games has K.C. thinking postseason.
PHOTOROBERT B. STANTON/WIREIMAGE.COM  BOLD GESTURE
After writing a letter to Phoenix papers apologizing for his previous game, Boldin had a banner day.
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)