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THE HEALING began at a blackjack table, of all places, in a banquet room at Giants Stadium in the middle of baseball season. A June minicamp had come to an end, but New York Giants players and coaches were instructed to convene for one last meeting before going their separate ways. Seated at the table, carrying neither a whistle nor his familiar scowl, was coach Tom Coughlin, waiting for face cards. It was a team-only casino night, the first in Coughlin's four-year tenure and an uncharacteristic off-season overture from the coach to his players.
The gamble paid off big. "It gave us a chance to see him as something other than just Coach Coughlin, standing at the podium, giving a speech," defensive back R.W. McQuarters says. "It gave us a chance to bond. We relaxed, we had fun, we put football to the side. We were just guys."
Since then the Giants have found common ground with their coach, created magic in a season that began in peril and, on Sunday, crushed the Super Bowl hopes of hated rival Dallas on its own field. Four months ago New York was best known for an exasperating quarterback and a coach trending toward lame-duck status. Against the Cowboys at Texas Stadium, facing tall odds and playing on weary legs, the Giants scripted a remarkable afternoon that culminated in a 21--17 victory and a berth in the NFC title game at Green Bay.
Even as Dallas mounted one last drive, reaching the Giants' 23-yard line with less than a minute to play, New York linebacker Antonio Pierce pulled his teammates close for final instructions and some late inspiration. "Nobody gave us a chance," Pierce reminded his mates. "Nobody thought we would be here."
With 16 seconds left and the Cowboys facing fourth-and-11, Tony Romo whistled the ball toward receiver Terry Glenn in the end zone. When McQuarters stepped in front and intercepted the pass, the visitors' sideline erupted; Coughlin and his men celebrating the Giants' first trip to a conference title game since the 2000 season.
"What I think you are seeing is the team concept to the nth degree," Coughlin said of his 12--6 club afterward. Added John Mara, the Giants' co-owner and president, "I'm proud of the way the players have responded to him and the way he's responded to them. It's a good locker room right now."
What has coalesced for the Giants on the field this season is a quarterback playing without worry, a defense running downhill and special teams staking the offense to a short field. First-year general manager Jerry Reese found important contributors on both days of last April's draft, from cornerback Aaron Ross in the first round and receiver Steve Smith in the second to running back Ahmad Bradshaw, a steal in the seventh.
Nevertheless, it's Coughlin's transformation that has had perhaps the most impact. After going 8--8 and losing a wild-card playoff to the Philadelphia Eagles last season, Coughlin (following the suggestion of ownership) revealed a softer side to go along with his iron fist, forming a leadership council of veterans who have the pulse of the locker room. A man who'd thrown heat his entire career learned to mix in a changeup. "My whole philosophy has been to communicate with the players better," Coughlin says. "I share my thoughts with [the leadership council], they share their thoughts with me, and they take the message to the team."
Says defensive end Michael Strahan, a council member, "He's changed toward us, and our view has changed toward him. He has always wanted to win, but it used to be impersonal. Now it's personal. He does have a sense of humor, and you know he cares about you."
Mutual trust proved critical after New York opened the season with a 45--35 loss at Dallas and a 35--13 defeat at home against Green Bay. In Week 3 the Giants were in another hole, trailing the Washington Redskins 17--3 at halftime, only to rally and win with the help of a late goal line stand. "Everybody still believed in each other," Ross says, recalling the mood at halftime against Washington. "The coaches didn't show any weakness or change their message." Adds guard Chris Snee, "You could look back at that goal line stand and say it really turned our season around."