A Look at the Competition

There appears to be some bad blood between the Panthers and Giants heading into their matchup, while the Bucs prepare for a rematch with the Washington Redskins.

Carolina defensive ends Julius Peppers and Mike Rucker were clearly a little miffed at comments made by New York Giants defensive end Osi Umenyiora on Wednesday.

Umenyiora told beat reporters in New York that Peppers and Rucker are "the second-best defensive end tandem in the league."

He called himself and Michael Strahan the best.

Umenyiora's comments had already made their way around Carolina's locker room by the time Rucker and Peppers showed up in the open locker room on Thursday to meet with reporters.

At first, Peppers refused comment, but then later said of Umenyiora, "I mean, he ain't going to button up his chin strap and get in front of me, so it doesn't really matter. If he was, he wouldn't be talking like that."

Thursday, Strahan added more fuel to the fire, saying, "I know what they are thinking: 'Strahan and Umenyiora, we're better than them. We're going to show them.' (But) we are thinking the same thing about those guys."

Strahan said he likes Umenyiora's confidence.

"He's young," Strahan said. "You know what? If you don't believe that, maybe you shouldn't be here. They believe they are the best. We believe we are the best. We are not bad at all. In my opinion, we are the best because I am part of that combo."

Umenyiora does have something to back up his comments.

He led the NFC in sacks this year with 14 1/2, while Strahan was third with 11 1/2. Both are headed to the Pro Bowl.

Peppers was also voted to Honolulu for a second straight year after finishing tied for fourth in the conference in sacks, but Rucker wasn't even an honorable mention despite 7 1/2 sacks, three forced fumbles and two recoveries.

When asked who was the best defensive end tandem in the league, Rucker started to respond, then, sensing a trap, thought twice about it, smiled and backed off.

"We'll see when all of the playoffs settle down and the Super Bowl is done," Rucker said. "You have some good sets of defensive ends out there and to get where we want to go we'll have to see them. We'll see after the dust clears."

When asked if Umenyiora's comments provided any incentive, Rucker smiled and said, "We'll talk Sunday after the game."


  • RB DeShaun Foster (toe) practiced on Thursday, but remains listed as questionable for Sunday's game. Expect him to be ready for the Giants.

  • MLB Dan Morgan (shoulder) practiced on Thursday, but remains listed as questionable for Sunday's game. Expect him to be ready for the Giants.

  • SLB Brandon Short (knee) practiced on Thursday, but remains listed as questionable for Sunday's game. Expect him to be ready for the Giants.

  • FB Brad Hoover (ankle) practiced on Thursday, but remains listed as questionable for Sunday's game. Expect him to be ready for the Giants.

  • G Tutan Reyes (toe) practiced on Thursday, but remains listed as questionable for Sunday's game. Expect him to be ready for the Giants.

    Back in April of 2004, a week or so after the Giants pulled off the trade with San Diego that netted quarterback Eli Manning, the first overall pick in that year's draft, Pro Bowl defensive end Michael Strahan vented his displeasure.

    Among other things he said was this: "I am too old to sit through the education of a young quarterback. I thought Kerry (Collins) was great for this team, a great quarterback with a rifle for an arm. I think the team ran out on me and the other players whose careers are winding down and who might have only one more chance to get that Super Bowl ring."

    He admitted he was "furious" with the decision not only to make the deal for Manning but to grant Collins his wish and release him - Collins had said, "I'm out of here. I ain't no baby sitter."

    That was then. Now, Strahan sings a different song.

    "Well, at the time I believed in what I said, and I felt the way I said it," he explained. "But how could anyone know that Eli was going to be that good that fast? I think we have a solid chance with him going into the playoffs, but I still think that Kerry could have done it for us right now. Of course, Eli has a lot more upside and can look at a much longer career."

    So Strahan made peace with the team and embraced Manning, and he has been rewarded with another - and totally unexpected - trip to the NFL postseason tournament.

    "I have seen this kid (Manning) play way above his years," Strahan said. "He has learned almost every game, gotten better almost every game. Anyone who is more relaxed than Eli, well, you better check for a pulse. The kid never gets flustered."

    Against the Carolina Panthers on Sunday, Manning probably will have more to do with the outcome than the great defensive ends on each side, more than the receiving acrobatics of Carolina's Steve Smith and the Giants' Plaxico Burress, more than the athleticism of Giants tight end Jeremy Shockey.

    "It's going to be up to him," Strahan said, "and as a team, we are totally comfortable and confident with him at quarterback."

    For his part, Manning just grinned.

    "I don't show a lot of emotion," he said. "I don't carry a mistake over to the next play. I never was a screamer, a yeller. I just try to get to the next step, which means winning the game that is at hand."


  • LG David Diehl confirmed that the Carolina defensive line is as good as everybody says, but added this: "If you go at their strongest point, and pound the ball and pound the ball, something good is going to happen. Man, I'm an offensive lineman. I'd like to see, oh, I don't know, 50 running plays."

  • TE Jeremy Shockey practiced Thursday and it would appear that his sprained ankle - which he said might be worse than that - will hold up for the rest of the playoffs. "I'm going to play," he said. "No matter what, I'm going to be out there."

  • RB Tiki Barber, to the surprise of many, finished fourth in the MVP balloting behind Seattle's Shaun Alexander, Indianapolis' Peyton Manning and New England's Tom Brady. "This season is not about individual awards," he said. "It is about the Giants continuing to win and being able to present a trophy to the families of our two owners (Wellington Mara and Bob Tisch) who died within three weeks of each other at midseason."

  • RDT William Joseph will be able to play, now that his ankle sprain has finally healed.

  • DE Michael Strahan is more than just familiar with Panthers' coach John Fox since Fox spent five years as the Giants defensive coordinator, said the Carolina defensive line is as good as advertised. "Those two ends," he said, referring to Julius Peppers and Michael Rucker, "could start for any team in this league. Except ours, of course."

    Rematches can be helpful, especially during a short week. But they also can be dangerous, because the opponent is familiar with your plays and personnel.

    That's the situation in Saturday's NFC wild card-round game between the Buccaneers and Redskins. Tampa Bay defeated Washington 36-35 on a two-point conversion in the final minute of their game Nov. 13.

    "I don't know. I sometimes wrestle with that on the way home. 'Should we call this thing again? They've seen this,' Bucs coach Jon Gruden said. "You sometimes go through that a little bit, but there is some familiarity. With this opponent, with the volume of football that they have - they have a myriad of fronts and alignments and coverages and blitzes - that's helped us somewhat. We also respect that they're going to have the same philosophy we have, that once we've shown it, maybe we don't show that again. I try to just concentrate on our football team, the finality of our attack and do the best we can to perfect it."

    Because the Redskins lost, one would expect them to make some adjustments. So does the rematch favor the loser of the first game?

    "No, I don't think so," Gruden said. "This time of year, it's hard to make drastic changes. We're going to be who we are. We're going to come out there and play as hard as we can and hopefully, we can play a lot better than we did the last time we saw them."

    The Bucs will attack the Redskins' defense by running rookie Cadillac Williams, who was coming off an injury when the teams met in November.

    "They have good players and they have a diverse scheme. You couple that together, that's tough to run the ball against," Gruden said. "They're a disciplined team, they're very physical and they present a lot of different looks - a three-man line, a four-man line, full pressure, full zone. That's a challenge. But we're going to do the best we can. We feel like we have gotten better running the ball. Certainly, that will be a challenge."


  • DE Simeon Rice returned to practice Thursday and was removed from the injury report. Rice missed Wednesday's workout with an illness.

  • WR Michael Clayton is out for Saturday's NFC wild card-round game against the Redskins. Clayton has a turf toe and may not return to action unless the Bucs go deep into the playoffs.

  • S Jermaine Phillips has a knee sprain and will be a game-time decision. Phillips has practiced sparingly this week and is listed as questionable.

  • RB Cadillac Williams was named the NFL Offensive Rookie of the Month after rushing for 462 yards and three touchdowns in helping the Bucs to a 4-1 finish.

  • WR Ike Hilliard will serve as the Bucs No. 2 receiver in Saturday's NFC wild card-round game with the injury to Michael Clayton.

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