AMANI TOOMER doesn't believe in deceit, unless the Giants receiver is setting up an unsuspecting cornerback by feigning a quick slant and then bursting down the sideline for a long gain, like the critical 30-yarder he had in the fourth quarter against the Steelers on Sunday. So rather than repeat the bland and disingenuous mantra that he's only concerned with his own team, Toomer quickly admits he keeps tabs on the Redskins, Cowboys, Eagles, Panthers and Bucs--and any other team that might challenge New York for NFC supremacy.
"If somebody tells you they don't watch what's going on in their conference, they're lying," he says. "Every week we've got our eyes on every article about every team."
And rest assured, those teams have their eyes on the Giants, especially after New York won Sunday's battle of 5-1 teams, rallying in the fourth quarter for a 21-14 victory at Heinz Field. The game was billed not only as a possible preview of Super Bowl XLIII but also as a chance for each team to prove its record wasn't built on a foundation of Jell-O.
Such assertions were particularly galling for the defending Super Bowl champions, whom critics questioned because only one of their victories had come against a team with a winning record. That's why the game in Pittsburgh was so critical. A road win against a club that possessed the league's top-ranked defense, its second-ranked run defense, two players among the top four in sacks and an eight-game home winning streak against NFC squads would make the skeptics take notice.
"From the beginning of the week we knew what we had to face," Giants running back Ahmad Bradshaw said. "But our motto is, Talk is cheap, play the game."
In the days leading up to the game, much of the talk revolved around the physicality of the two teams, specifically how New York's bruising halfback, Brandon Jacobs, would fare against the Steelers' suffocating defense. But if the Giants are ultimately to join the Patriots as a back-to-back Super Bowl winner this decade, their accomplishment will have as much to do with their mental toughness as with their outstanding offensive and defensive lines and their quarterback, Eli Manning, who continues to thrive under pressure.
New York is a team that refuses to blink in the face of adversity and distraction. When coach Tom Coughlin benched wide receiver Plaxico Burress for the first quarter after Burress failed to show up last Saturday for treatment on his injured neck, no one flinched. When the offense failed to reach the end zone on five trips inside the Pittsburgh 20 in the first 31⁄2 quarters, including two series in which they had first-and-goal from the four or closer, there was no panic. Same thing when breakdowns on defense resulted in a 32-yard touchdown run by Mewelde Moore and a 65-yard scoring catch by Nate Washington.
The Giants are a threat to repeat because they have the maturity and experience to draw on the lessons from last season's playoff run, when they won three road games before beating the undefeated Patriots in the Super Bowl. In fact, in their final three postseason games they overcame fourth-quarter deficits twice and prevailed in overtime in the other. "There's nothing tougher than a road playoff game," right guard Chris Snee said. "Having to play those games last year and coming out successful does wonders for the mentality of this team."
Experience has also taught the Giants how to take control of a game when the opportunity is there. On Sunday that moment arrived midway through the fourth quarter, when Steelers linebacker James Harrison, forced to long-snap after Greg Warren tore his left ACL during the game, launched the ball over the head of punter Mitch Berger for a safety that tied the score at 14. Suddenly the momentum had shifted. A sellout crowd that had been so vocal was now holding its breath, for good reason.
After the ensuing free kick, Manning, who was never sacked, drove the Giants 53 yards, tossing a two-yard touchdown pass to tight end Kevin Boss. Overlooked but equally important was the fact that the defense limited Pittsburgh to three yards of total offense on its final four possessions. With a touchdown lead and only three minutes to go, defenders knew that the Steelers would have to throw, and they all but ignored play action to rush quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, who was sacked five times and intercepted four times--one more than his total entering the game.