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A healthy, happy Umenyiora is great for Giants, trouble for NFC East

by | Senior NFL Columnist
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Umenyiora says the Giants are the best team in football and that he'd like to remain in New York. (US Presswire)  
Umenyiora says the Giants are the best team in football and that he'd like to remain in New York. (US Presswire)  

ALBANY, N.Y. -- I don't know if the New York Giants repeat as Super Bowl champions. Heck, I don't know if they repeat as NFC East champions. But I do know one reason why they should be -- they will be -- a playoff factor and a division force.

Osi Umenyiora.

The defensive end is a critical part of a premier set of pass rushers, and for the first time in a long time he's not only healthy; he's smiling. That means he's a happy camper, which means the Giants can go about their business this summer without fielding questions about his contract, his attitude, his absence or his future.

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More than that, it means they're locked and loaded for a defense of their title.

History says it won't happen, and Michael Vick says it may not, either. All I know is that making Umenyiora happy by giving him what he deserves -- namely, a pay raise -- guarantees the Giants won't go away, and here's why: They're not only a better team when he plays; they're a vastly better team.

They were 9-4 when he played last season, 4-4 when he didn't. Moreover, they didn't lose a game after he returned for the season finale vs. Dallas, a game in which he had two sacks and that launched them into the playoffs.

With Umenyiora, Justin Tuck, Jason Pierre-Paul and Mathias Kiwanuka, the Giants don't just have a set of quality pass rushers; they have a group of elite defenders, and if there's one lesson we learned from these guys a year ago it's that the great pass rush trumps the great quarterback.

The proof was there in the playoffs when the Giants' pass rush shut down, in order: Matt Ryan, Aaron Rodgers, Alex Smith and Tom Brady. The four combined for a 83.11 passer rating, six touchdowns, two interceptions, 11 sacks, 54 points and ... oh, yeah, zero wins.

"It always comes down to the team with the best defense," Tuck said. "I always tell guys, 'Offense? They put the fans in the stands,' and I think that's why the NFL makes all the rules it's made. It makes it easier for the offense. But defenses win championships. Offenses can get all the glitz and glamour they want; but when it comes down to it I'll take a defense that can make that stop."

So will I, and the Giants are Exhibit A. They toppled the unbeatable New England Patriots in Super Bowl XLII with a furious pass rush that rattled the unflappable Tom Brady. Then they unleashed it four years later with the same results.

Umenyiora was a valuable element in that unit, brought off the bench on passing downs to pressure the pocket -- and he did not disappoint. In the playoff opener vs. Atlanta he leaped a blocker on the Falcons' last snap and dumped Ryan at the Giants' 25. It was one of 5.5 sacks for Umenyiora over the last five games, and it was one reason the Giants ran the table. Umenyiora's future was uncertain then. It's not anymore -- not after general manager Jerry Reese bumped Umenyiora's pay to $6.5 million for the last year of his contract, keeping the Giants' pass rush intact and, more importantly, keeping Umenyiora happy.

"I wanted to be here," Umenyiora said after Saturday's practice. "I'm just happy we were able to make something happen. When I did come back in, and I was around the team and around the guys I realized how much I loved the place. I'm just happy to be here and help this team win."

Trust me, a happy Umenyiora means an unhappy NFC East. The guy is a load off the edge, producing at least a half-sack in all but four of the games in which he played last season. That was when he was miserable. Imagine what happens now that he's not.

"The expertise he has to attack opposing linemen is uncanny," Tuck said. "I'm definitely glad to see him back. More than anything, though, I'm glad to see him happy. I told him that, regardless of whether he's here or not, he deserves to be happy, and he deserves to be considered the best at what he does."

So, for that matter, does Tuck. He's one of the game's best defensive linemen, and he's not bothered by neck and groin injuries that handicapped him last season. Pierre-Paul is one of the game's best defensive linemen, too, a guy who produced a team-high 16.5 sacks in only his second season. Then there's Kiwanuka at an outside linebacker spot and Umenyiora off the bench, and tell me where's there's a break for a quarterback -- because there isn't one.

In a passing league, few should pressure passers the way the Giants will -- which means more hardship for opposing quarterbacks in particular and offenses in general.

"Because of the way the NFL is structured now," said Umenyiora, "if you're not able to get a great pass rush you have no chance. We can run a plethora of pass rushers at you over and over -- even from the inside -- and we're able to pretty much control the game that way.

"Not only that, you're able to see that teams aren't able to run the same offenses as they run against other people because they [their quarterbacks] know they don't have that time. Receivers are running shorter routes, and the quarterback is throwing the ball quicker. So the game is changed, simply because of the type of pass rush we present. I think that's what has given us the advantage."

I think it has, too. In fact, I know it has. Super Bowls XLII and XLVI proved it. The pass rush that frazzled quarterbacks down the stretch a year ago is back, only this time an unhappy Osi Umenyiora isn't wondering what's next for his career. He knows, and, for a change, he likes what he sees.

"I love being around these guys, and we have fun together and we love playing together," he said. "You never really can tell what's going to happen, but, on paper, I think we're the best team in football."

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