Talented enough to win another division title, the Giants will ride theirdefensive leader's return to full strength and their young quarterback'scontinued development to avoid another playoff flameout. An attitude adjustmentwon't hurt, either.
Tom Coughlin's team fulfilled its goals in 2005--and that, Pro Bowl halfbackTiki Barber says, created a Giant problem. After going 11--5 to win its firstdivision title since 2000, New York was throttled 23--0 at home by Carolina ina wild-card playoff, a game for which Barber believes he and his teammates werenot adequately prepared. "That comes from rhetoric, from not setting yourgoals high enough," says Barber, who's coming off a career year thatincluded a team-record 1,860 rushing yards. "The talk all season was'Restore Giant pride' and 'Get to the playoffs,' and we did that. But anyonewho thought we had a successful season is misguided."
Now Coughlin, inhis third year as coach, is telling his players they're good enough to win theSuper Bowl. And he's not tripping, given the plethora of returning standoutsand the injection of newcomers such as former Redskins All-Pro linebacker LaVarArrington and slippery rookie wideout Sinorice Moss.
The keys to NewYork's quest are the performances of two players--one barely known (middlelinebacker Antonio Pierce), the other seemingly never out of the headlines(quarterback Eli Manning)--to take command on their respective sides of theball. Perhaps the best way to state the importance of Pierce, a physical andshrewd sixth-year player, is to look at what happened to the Giants after ahigh-ankle sprain ended his 2005 season in the thirteenth game. "When welost him," general manager Ernie Accorsi says, "we lost our heart andsoul." Over the next weeks they also lost just about every other linebackerwho had suited up, which helps explain the 223 rushing yards the Panthersrolled up in the playoff game.
If Pierce, aplayer Coughlin categorizes as "tough, focused, analytical and very, veryserious during the game," can escape injury, the Giants will have afearsome defense. With the addition of Arrington and first-rounder MathiasKiwanuka, a defensive end out of Boston College, New York's already formidablepass rush--led by ends Michael Strahan, a future Hall of Famer who's still aforce at 34, and Osi Umenyiora, who topped the NFC with 14 1/2 sacks--will bedownright nasty. That would take pressure off a secondary that's bolstered byfree-agent signees Will Demps, R.W. McQuarters and Sam Madison.
New York couldbe similarly scary on offense, with Moss joining veteran receivers PlaxicoBurress, Amani Toomer and Tim Carter and tight end Jeremy Shockey as targetsfor Manning--when he's not handing off to Barber, 31, who has defied therunning back odds by getting better after 30. Manning, in his third season, hada promising start in 2005, throwing 20 touchdowns and 10 interceptions throughNovember. His late-season struggles--four touchdowns, seven interceptions overthe last five games--foreshadowed his playoff performance: zero TDs, threepicks.
"If we getit all together--and Eli is the key--it's tough to find a team that has allthat we have, especially with our experience," Barber says. "For thefirst time, at least for as long as I've been here, we have a completeteam."
17 at Philadelphia
24 at Seattle
15 at Atlanta
23 at Dallas (M)
29 TAMPA BAY
20 at Jacksonville (M)
26 at Tennessee
10 at Carolina
24 NEW ORLEANS
30 at Washington (S)
(M) Monday (S)Saturday
Opponents' 2005 winning percentage
Games against playoff teams
AN OPPOSING TEAM'S SCOUT SIZES UP THE GIANTS
> Theirdefense has got to play better, especially down the stretch, and Eli Manninghas to step up. Period. Otherwise they've got serious problems.
> Good movetrading up to draft Sinorice Moss, the wide receiver out of Miami. He's a teamguy all the way, and he'll make some plays.
> A coupleof the Giants' off-season moves I didn't like so much. LaVar Arrington, comingover from the Redskins, makes as many mistakes as he does big plays, and SamMadison, who spent nine seasons playing cornerback for the Dolphins, can't runanymore.
> As good asOsi Umenyiora is, people still can't say his name. But they'll learn it by theend of this season. Antonio Pierce is another player who's better than mostrealize.
Sure, this isMichael Strahan's 14th season. But I don't care how old he is. The guy is stillgreat.
When the Giantsselected the 6'3" 317-pounder out of Boston College in the second round ofthe 2004 draft, there were whispers of nepotism because he was coach TomCoughlin's future son-in-law. But when people talk about Snee now, it's as afuture All-Pro. Since winning the starting job at right guard in his rookietraining camp, he has made steady progress as a run blocker and a passprotector. "He's a powerful guy," Coughlin says, "with the abilityto pull and run and get in front of the ballcarrier."
WITH 2005 STATISTICS
TOM COUGHLIN (85--75 in NFL), third season with New York
SACKS 11 1/2
SACKS 1 1/2
SACKS 14 1/2
SACKS 2 1/2
NFL RANK (RUSH/PASS/TOTAL)
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Other Giants get more ink, but Pierce is vital to the team'ssuccess.