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THE GIANTS are 5--2 for the fourth consecutive year, which can only mean one thing for their fans: more angst. The last three seasons did not end well—from a 6--10 debacle in 2004 to wild-card playoff losses the last two seasons—which is why Big Blue followers might have left Sunday's 33--15 pummeling of the visiting 49ers wondering if they should celebrate their team's fifth straight win or cringe at the thought of another disappointment in the offing.
But hold on. "You want to know why this year will be different from the others?" linebacker Antonio Pierce said after the San Francisco game. "All I can say is, if we're healthy, everybody knows what this team can do."
New York's winning streak is the longest in the NFC and should increase to six games this Sunday, when the Giants play the winless Dolphins in London. After surrendering 45 points to the Cowboys and 35 to the Packers in their two losses to open the season, the Giants have held opponents to 17 points or fewer in four of their five wins. They have 25 sacks over the last five games, compared with just two in the opening losses. Most notably, New York has allowed a total of 18 second-half points in the five wins versus 56 in the two losses.
Pierce says the primary reason for the defense's quick turnaround is better familiarity with and execution of new coordinator Steve Spagnuolo's more aggressive scheme. In addition, the team's overall improvement can be traced to changes that took place off the field, specifically the retirement of running back Tiki Barber and the willingness of quarterback Eli Manning and coach Tom Coughlin to step out of their comfort zones.
Barber, the franchise's alltime leading rusher, cast a long shadow in the locker room, and his well-publicized disagreements with Coughlin, according to several prominent veterans, negatively affected some young players. "We're a team now," says Pierce, a seven-year veteran. "When we say we're going to do something as a team, we do it as a team. That wasn't the case in previous years. I'm not going to say it's because of [ Barber], but it's like this: When you have one of the great players on your team going the opposite direction of where you think the team should go, what message does that send to the younger guys who look up to this guy?"
Adds 15th-year defensive end Michael Strahan, "All it takes is for one person to be like that, and it affects everyone. That guy was a heck of a player and played well for us, but that definitely ... takes energy away from you. Now we don't have that. Guys are enjoying playing for Coach and playing together. Everybody knows their role."
Long known for his inflexibility and all-business attitude, Coughlin has earned praise from his players for being less rigid this year. Unlike in the past, they say, Coughlin cracks jokes and makes small talk. One night in training camp he canceled meetings to take the team bowling. He also established a players' council to decide on issues ranging from cafeteria menus to practice schedules.
"The changes he's made have exceeded anything I ever expected," Strahan says. "The guy actually is a personality now. He's funny, he gets the room laughing. He makes you feel like you can enjoy being at work. That's important."
So was the moment when Manning stood up for himself after Barber, in his new role as an NBC broadcaster, questioned the quarterback's leadership at halftime of a preseason game. Normally country cool, Manning reacted by questioning Barber's commitment to the team following the running back's midseason announcement that he intended to retire at the end of 2006.