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Giants serve notice to rest of league after playing like defending champs

by | Senior NFL Columnist
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EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. -- When the New York Giants ended last Friday's practice they were urged to "play like world champions." So they did, and now they're back where they belong -- and I don't mean in control of the NFC East.

Nope, they've re-established themselves as a legitimate Super Bowl contender.

Yeah, OK, so it's one victory. Only it wasn't merely one victory. It was a 38-10 beatdown of mighty Green Bay, and for those keeping score, that's the second time in 11 months the Giants shredded one of the NFC's premier clubs.

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But don't stop there. They've beaten San Francisco twice in the past 11 months, too, including a 26-3 hammering last month -- and both games were at Candlestick Park. They also destroyed Atlanta in the playoffs last season, and connect the dots, people. That's five consecutive victories against the NFC's best and brightest by a combined score of 145-52 ... and that should get someone's attention.

"It's a start," linebacker Mathias Kiwanuka said.

Yeah, well, that's what they said last year around this time, and we know what happened. The Giants won another Super Bowl. But this year's club had been floundering, caught in a two-game tailspin where nothing much went right -- including their quarterback, Eli Manning, who went three games without a touchdown pass.

But then along came a bye, and along came a 15-year-old "Make-A-Wish" participant named Adam Merchant from Barre, Vt., a guest at practice Friday who later was asked to address players. What he told them was to "play like world champions," a message the Giants no doubt heard countless times before ... only not like this.

"It just came from the heart," Merchant said.

And it resonated with his listeners.

"We were definitely inspired," Kiwanuka said.

So we noticed.

The Giants' victory was thorough and complete, with the club playing as it did last postseason. It overwhelmed Aaron Rodgers again, producing five sacks. It produced an effective running game, gaining 147 yards. And it rolled out a familiar Manning, with the quarterback hitting three touchdown passes -- all on third downs -- and backing off critics who claimed he suffers from a tired arm.

"I think the rest really helped him," Coughlin said. "In fact, he said he felt as if he was coming back for the start of a season. I was very confident he would come back and become Eli."

Manning wasn't particularly sharp, completing a little more than 50 percent of his passes, but he pushed all the right buttons when necessary -- including a first-period scramble where he gained 13 yards before refusing to slide and lowering his right shoulder into defensive back Tramon Williams.

The play seemed to ignite his teammates, with Coughlin saying "it sent a message to the rest of the team," one that was carried throughout an evening where the Giants suddenly and inexplicably looked like themselves again.

"Whatever you have to do to succeed, do it," Coughlin said.

And the Giants did. The victory was so lopsided, so resounding, so downright overwhelming that it sent an unmistakable message to a nationwide TV audience -- namely, that you must include the Giants among this year's Super Bowl favorites again. OK, so they're not the best team out there, but look what happens when they dial up games like this: Nobody beats them. Not Green Bay. Not San Francisco. Not Atlanta. Nobody.

If there was a shortcoming, it was only in the postgame news that running back Andre Brown -- who has a team-high eight rushing TDs -- is lost for the year with a broken fibula. That's a significant setback. A knee injury to safety Kenny Phillips could be, too, though he insisted later he's OK and that he left only as a precautionary measure.

All I know is that what we just saw from the Giants is what Adam Merchant asked of them.

"I think we definitely played like world champions," wide receiver Victor Cruz said.

I do, too, and that's something for everyone jockeying for position in the NFC to consider. New York already demonstrated it doesn't need to be home to go to a Super Bowl. In fact, when it won a Lombardi Trophy in early 2008, it won three road games before beating New England in Arizona. Last postseason, it beat Atlanta at home before going on the road to knock off Green Bay and San Francisco, then besting New England again ... this time in Indianapolis.

This year's Giants offered glimpses of those ballclubs, but not since their destruction of the 49ers last month. With their latest victory, however, they signaled they're not only alive for another Super Bowl run, but they're dangerous, too -- especially when they play as they did Sunday, with their pass rush, their running game, their passing game and Eli Manning all excelling.

"We played the way we know we can," Manning said.

Exactly. They played like world champions.

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