Inside Slant, Notes, Quotes, Report Cards

The New York Giants, perhaps to the surprise of all -- including themselves -- sit atop the NFC East standings in a 3-1 tie with the Washington Redskins.

Of course, it's early, and not all the teams have gone through their bye week yet. But the notion that the Giants, who were 6-10 last season and finished in a 1-8 free fall, could win three of their first four games is still somewhat stunning.

The favored bully in the division is still Philadelphia, but when the Eagles took one on the chin in Dallas -- to the tune of 33-10 -- it opened some eyes in and around Giants Stadium. The Giants have lost seven of their last eight encounters with the Eagles and generally come up short, cold and inconsistent when they do play.

But now, they honestly feel there is a chance for some retribution. In fact, they don't play the Eagles until Nov. 20 and then again on Dec. 11, but they do have a meeting with Washington Oct. 30, and this Sunday they'll be in Dallas to play the Cowboys, who are currently 3-2.

"I watched the game a couple of ways," said Giants' head coach Tom Coughlin, speaking of the Eagles-Cowboys tilt. "First, I watched it as a fan, and I made notes about things I wanted to see when I watched it again (as a coach) on tape. It was nice to have a weekend off, but I can't wait to get started."

Neither can the ingenue quarterback, Eli Manning. "It's going to be a great game," he said. "That is a very good team and the defense played exceptionally well."

On the other hand, the Dallas defense hadn't played all that well prior to the game with the Eagles, and Eli appears to be getting better each time he plays. Through four games, he had completed 66-of-123 passes for 985 yards, nine touchdowns and only two interceptions.

"I can see more of the game as the play starts," he said, something which would cause veteran quarterback to nod knowingly. "I'm learning with every game."

He's also learning who his friends are, like a vastly improved collection of O-linemen and his newest wide receiver, Plaxico Burress. Fully 40 percent of his completions (25-for-396 yards) have gone to "Plax", and almost half his touchdown tosses (four of the nine) reached the hands of this 6-5, 225-pounder.

So as the Giants resume competition, with no scheduled weekend off until they run out of (regular season or playoff) games, it's Eli at the forefront -- with a little help from his friends.

NOTES, QUOTES

--Between Eli Manning and his brother, Peyton, the pair has thrown 17 touchdown passes, nine of which belong to baby brother. "I never feel competition with Peyton," Eli said. "I am proud of him for everything he does. We talk football a lot, and we do speak like twice a week, but I have never considered who's doing better."

--Head coach Tom Coughlin might be following his own trend. In his second year as head coach at Boston College, he turned a 4-7 record into one of 8-3-1. In his second year as head coach of the Jacksonville Jaguars, he turned a first-season record (the Jags were an expansion team) of 4-12 into 9-7 and a playoff berth. Last year, his first with the Giants, they were 6-10. And now?

PLAYER PERSONNEL NOTES

--SLB/WLB Carlos Emmons, who missed the last game (Oct. 2 vs. St. Louis) with a sprained knee, should be available for the game Sunday in Dallas. That will leave defensive coordinator Tim Lewis with a decision -- what to do with SLB Reggie Torbor, who was benched the week prior, only to come back to replace Emmons and play especially well.

--RCB Will Peterson flew out to Los Angeles during the off week for what was a third opinion on his lower back, an injury thought to be a stress fracture of the transverse process. A decision should be announced this week, but in all likelihood, he is gone for the season.

--RB Brandon Jacobs, the 6-4, 265-pound rookie sensation, is going to get more action soon, and his position coach, Gerald Ingram, indicates it will be in a supporting role to starter Tiki Barber. "Brandon has all the tools," he says. "But he has to get more familiar with blitz pick-up and that kind of thing."

--OLT Luke Petitgout, who had a shaky 2004 season, has played remarkably well so far this season. Does it have anything to do with Pro Bowl veteran Bob Whitfield lurking behind him? "No, I think having 'Whit' there is helpful," Petitgout says. "I'm just playing better. That's it."

--QB Eli Manning, says position coach Kevin Gilbride, wasn't the only one who was booed lustily by the fans in that Sunday night game in San Diego. So was he. Gilbride was the Chargers' head coach in 1997 and for the first six games of 1998 before being fired. "It was a good experience" is all he will say, but he says it with tongue firmly planted in cheek.

STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL

REPORT CARD AFTER 4 GAMES

PASSING OFFENSE: B-plus -- Head coach Tom Coughlin promised more firepower once QB Eli Manning began feeling more comfortable, and it has worked out exactly that way so far. Through four games, Manning was ranked second in the NFC behind Philadelphia's Donovan McNabb with 66 completions in 123 attempts for 985 yards, nine TDs and just two picks. The O-line, a problem of Herculean proportions last season due to injuries and ineffectiveness, has bounced back and become one of the strongest units on the team. The addition of Kareem McKenzie at right tackle has helped greatly, but so has the obvious improvement of the other four starters. The completions, basically, have gone to three receivers -- the two WRs, Plaxico Burress and Amani Toomer, and TE Jeremy Shockey. Between them, they have caught 51 of Manning's 66 completions, eight of the nine TDs, and 782 of his 985 yards.

RUSHING OFFENSE: B -- It isn't as good as it was last year, but with the added pressure applied to defenses by the passing game, the Giants are averaging 4.4 yards a clip and RB Tiki Barber has gained 333 yards on 74 carries. That projects to 1,332 yards for the season, despite the fact that Barber has had only one 100-yard game thus far. The rookie Brandon Jacobs is a star in waiting, and at 6-4 and 265 pounds, he is anticipated to become a defensive nightmare when the weather is cold and the ground is hard. The O-line has blocked well for the running game, featuring RT Kareem McKenzie as the "road grader" and a vastly improved RG Chris Snee and C Shaun O'Hara playing much better than in ' 04. TE Jeremy Shockey, despite protestations that he doesn't like it, has become a crack blocker.

RUSH DEFENSE: B -- Defensive coordinator Tim Lewis promised that in each and every game the Giants play, they would have the same goal -- to stop the run first. With the exception of a monster game by San Diego's LaDainian Tomlinson, it has worked. The Giants have severely limited J.J. Arrington of Arizona, Deuce McAlister of New Orleans and the Steven Jackson/Marshall Faulk combination of St. Louis. In fact, those four players totaled 217 yards rushing -- Tomlinson, however, had 192. The decision to establish this as a goal -- shutting down the run -- is partially responsible for the poor pass defense. It establishes more one-on-one matchups for the secondary. As a result, the team has eight interceptions (and had only 14 all of last season).

PASS DEFENSE: C-minus -- Opponents are averaging 322 yards per game passing, which is lousy to say the least, and through four games, places the Giants 31st in pass defense, behind only San Francisco. The Giants' secondary has been porous; missed tackles and blown coverages account for most of the problems, but LCB Will Allen has played poorly for the second year in a row and RCB Will Peterson has been shelved with a lower back problem (stress fracture, transverse process) that might keep him out for the season. SS Gibril Wilson has played well, as has FS Brent Alexander. There was a problem with the linebacking corps until second-year Reggie Torbor was taken out of the SLB position and put on the bench. That moved veteran Carlos Emmons back to SLB from WLB, inserted Nick Greisen at WLB and left veteran Antonio Pierce in the middle. Then last week Emmons was forced to miss a game (knee) and Torbor came back with a furious rush. The front four has been acceptably mediocre, especially in the middle, where DTs William Joseph and Kendrick Clancy seem to take turns playing both well and poorly.

SPECIAL TEAMS: B -- Significant improvement has been achieved by position coach Mike Sweatman, who has added speed and size to all the special units. Willie Ponder, who led the NFL with a 29.6 average kickoff return last season, is averaging 30.1 this year, and has a 95-yard TD return. Chad Morton, a late addition, handles the punt returns and is averaging 11.6 yards per with a 52-yard TD return. Standouts on coverage teams have been WR David Tyree, who was voted as an alternate to the Pro Bowl last season; rookie RB Brandon Jacobs; rookie LB Chase Blackburn, among others. P Jeff Feagles is averaging 43.9 yards per punt and a 40.1 net. He has placed seven punts inside the 20. K Jay Feely hasn't missed a thing yet -- he is eight-for-eight in FGs, 16-for-16 in PAT tries.

COACHING: B -- Head coach Tom Coughlin has been the mastermind behind the offensive renaissance and deserves most of the credit. Remember, offense has always been his strong suit, dating back to his days as the receivers coach with the Giants under Bill Parcells (1988-1990). But coordinator John Hufnagel and quarterbacks coach Kevin Gilbride have done a superb job conditioning and training young Eli Manning, who has responded beyond most expectations. Defensive coordinator Tim Lewis has had his hands full, especially with a recalcitrant secondary and not enough quality along the D-line. Special teams coach Mike Sweatman is proving to be one of the best in the NFL.

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