Manning improved but lost, improved but lost, improved but lost. Finally, he won the final game of the season and hasn't stopped working since. He was in Giants Stadium two weeks into February studying, watching tapes, talking with the coaches and, whenever someone was around to play catch, throwing passes. Warner, meanwhile, expressing some mild discontent with Coughlin's decision - "I think we were doing well and I thought we might win something," he said - was the perfect team player after the benching. He was a cheerleader, an advisor, a calm voice in the storm of losing, and all the while insisted he felt he could still play. When the season was over, the Giants agreed that he could void the final two years of a contract - knowing all along that would be the case once they told him Manning was going to be the starter - and they cut him loose at the same time they anointed the once and future king. So now it's Manning and the Giants against Warner and the Cardinals.
Eli has played well, and despite a sore elbow suffered in the second preseason game against Carolina when defensive end Julius Peppers hit him and jarred loose an intended pass, he is ready to go. Warner was named starting quarterback before training camp started for the Cardinals, much to the chagrin of Josh McCown, and while he began the summer hot, he finished it cool. "I think Eli is going to be one of the great quarterbacks," said Warner, who for a couple of years in St. Louis was the same. "I watched him grow and progress last year and I was happy to be of some help." But now? "Now I want my team to win," he said, and his team is now Arizona. SERIES HISTORY: 121st meeting: The Giants hold a 77-41-2 advantage, but have lost their past two games against the Cardinals. The last time Arizona played in Giants Stadium produced a 17-13 Giants victory on Dec. 15, 2001.
--QB Eli Manning has thrown increasingly more each day since returning from his bruised elbow-imposed weeklong rest. "I'm fine," he said. "I'm ready to play. I can't wait to play. You know, missing practice was a new experience for me. I never missed even one in high school or college." Manning threw 75 passes earlier in the week, the most since his injury, and the next day coach Tom Coughlin was asked if he checked to see how his prize QB felt. "No, I told Eli I wouldn't ask how he felt," he said. But did he? "I didn't, but I have my sources," he joked.
--DE Michael Strahan, entering his 13th season, says he is learning to appreciate the career he has had and is anticipating with joy whatever career he has left. "I know I can't play much longer," said the six-time Pro Bowler, "so I am savoring each snap, each play, from now on." Strahan holds the NFL single-season sack record of 22.5, set in 2001, and is the Giants' second all-time sack leader with 118. LB Lawrence Taylor retired with 132.5, a total not out of Strahan's reach. Strahan is 12th on the NFL's career sack list.
--Coughlin and Arizona's Dennis Green were both "rookie coaches" last season but only Green won his opening game. Coughlin lost in Philadelphia, 31-17, but then the Giants won four straight and five out of six before an eight-game losing streak.
--P Jeff Feagles, who has kicked for five teams in his 16 NFL seasons, said Giants Stadium is the toughest to punt in of all the non-dome venues in the league. "There are like two layers of wind," he said, "and they always seem to be blowing in opposite directions. You can get the ball up into that first layer and it catches a good push, then if it goes too high it hits the second layer and invariably blows back a little. But you have to kick it high." He added that by practicing in the stadium during the week he has picked up a few "private tips" that the visiting punters don't know. Feagles needs five punts to surpass former Giant Sean Landeta for most punts in a career.
--Rookie RB Brandon Jacobs led the Giants in preseason rushing with 37 carries for 164 yards. The fourth-round pick from Southern Illinois transferred from Auburn because he was playing behind top five NFL draft choices Ronnie Brown (second overall) and Cadillac Williams (fifth), which didn't offer him much of an opportunity. "If one of those guys wasn't there," he said, "I have no doubt that I would have started."
--CB Corey Webster, the second-round pick from LSU, had two interceptions during the preseason and figures to see a lot of on-the-field time when the Giants go to their nickel defense. Against Arizona, which likes to use the three-WR set frequently, Webster should get all the work he wants. In fact, the Arizona depth chart shows three starting wideouts - Anquan Boldin, Bryant Johnson and Larry Fitzgerald.
--Only Philadelphia and Washington have played the Giants more than the Cardinals, who were opponents when they played in Chicago and then St. Louis. The first Giants-Cardinals game was played in 1926, a 20-0 Giants victory, the first of five straight to inaugurate the series. BY THE NUMBERS: 6 - times the Cardinals sacked QB Kurt Warner, now their starter, when the teams played last season in Tempe, Ariz. DE Bertrand Berry had four of them, a personal career high.
QUOTE TO NOTE: "Our memories of 9/11, when this opening game will be played, are personal and private. I know we'll think about it a lot, and remember it each time we are with our son." - Giants coach Tom Coughlin, whose son, Tim, was in one of the World Trade Center towers during the attack and managed to escape.
STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL
The Giants defense seems to have undergone yet another manipulation since the final preseason game Sept. 1. The front four now consists of LE Michael Strahan, LT Kendrick Clancy, RT William Joseph and RE Osi Umenyiora. Joseph replaces Fred Robbins. The LB corps, which underwent massive changes three weeks ago, remains intact despite some loose tackling. The SLB now is second-year Reggie Torbor, who did not start last season. He moved veteran Carlos Emmons to WLB, which sent incumbent Barrett Green to the bench. Newly obtained UFA Antonio Pierce supplanted Kevin Lewis, who started at MLB all last season and has been released. The LB shifting was designed to help the Giants stop the running game, and it did, to a large extent, during the preseason. But it was the ability to stop the pass that vaulted the Giants defense into the first overall spot in the NFL, since they were stingiest against the pass and just 16th against the run. Rookie CB Corey Webster had two of the team's league-leading eight preseason interceptions. There is still some thought that the defense will display far more 3-4 alignments than last year, and more than the coaching staff will admit.
PLAYER PERSONNEL NOTES
--CB Will Peterson (knee) expects to start, and coach Tom Coughlin doesn't deny that he will. But just in case, he's got Corey Webster ready to come in, if not as the nickel back then as the RCB.
--WR David Tyree beat out Tim Carter and Jamaar Taylor as the Giants' third WR, and will get "numerous opportunities," according to coach Tom Coughlin. "He had a great summer camp and never stops hustling," Coughlin said. "I admire his stamina and determination." Tyree had a 90-yard TD catch against the Panthers in the second preseason game.
--Rookie DE Justin Tuck, the third draft pick, finished the preseason with seven tackles, four fumble recoveries, two sacks, one interception and a pass defensed. He is listed as the backup to Osi Umenyiora on the right side. --QB Eli Manning started the Giants' final seven games last season but this will be the first time he opens the season as an NFL starter. "Nervous? No, I'm not nervous," he said. "I'll be happy when it starts so that I can stop thinking about it."
--Rookie RB Brandon Jacobs, reflecting on not only his spectacular summer but the biggest difference between college and the NFL. "I could sleep until noon in college," he said, "but now I'm at the stadium by 7 a.m. every day."
GAME PLAN: The Giants are concerned with the Cardinals offense but they are confident that their defense, especially the pass coverage, has improved. They'll use a lot of nickel formations and don't be surprised if you see regular LCB Will Allen playing the slot (nickel) while Will Peterson and rookie Corey Webster take the outside stations. Offensively, they feel they can run the ball, and if they do then the deep passes to WR Plaxico Burress and TE Jeremy Shockey could salt away the game.
MATCHUPS TO WATCH
Giants RDE Osi Umenyiora vs. Cardinals LT Leonard Davis should be a frightening contrast in sizes and styles. Umenyiora is 6-3 and 280, exceptionally quick off the snap and lightning-fast on the edge. Davis is a 6-6, 366-pound wall, and if Osi can get around him quickly the defense will roll.
Giants RT Kareem McKenzie vs. Cardinals LDE Chike Okeafor, which might look like a mismatch in McKenzie's favor, might be tougher than anyone foresees. Okeafor is 6-5 and 265, like Umenyiora exceptionally fast, while McKenzie, a recognized master of run blocking, is 6-6 and 327. He is not overly quick and must surround and envelope his opponent at the line of scrimmage.
The biggest problem of the day for the Giants might be LT Luke Petitgout finding a way to shut down Cardinals RDE Bertrand Berry, who had four sacks of QB Kurt Warner against Petitgout and the Giants last year. Berry is 6-4, 265; Petitgout is 6-4, 310. But Petitgout has been in a two-season slump.
INJURY IMPACT: The Giants appear reasonably healthy, with RCB Will Peterson (foot) and QB Eli Manning (elbow) both said to be ready to play. Manning has been practicing all week and Peterson resumed practice Wednesday.