Shocking Trio Will Lead Giants to 10 Wins

The perceived weaknesses are no longer weaknesses. David Diehl is going to hold the fort at left tackle. Mathias Kiwanuka is going to find a road map to the football. The defense is going to attack instead of react. And Eli Manning is going to have a spectacular season.

The Giants have gone from training camp disaster to playoff contender. They just as soon it remain a well-kept secret. But there is no more hiding it. The Giants are going to have a good football team.

Mark them down for a 10-6 finish and a corresponding spot in the postseason tournament.

And the thing is, their progress has, and will continue to have, almost nothing to do with their fearless leader, Michael Stray-han, deciding to join the pigskin party. The breakthrough has, and will have, everything to do with their comedic leader – right, Tiki? – primed for a breakout season. No, I'm not talking about Strahan this time.

I'm talking about Manning.

Manning isn't going to have a good season. He's going to have a great season. And if he doesn't, if Manning shares some of the mediocrity he's spilled on us the past two seasons, he will have pulled the greatest reversal since Tiki's personality.

Because Manning was great in the preseason. He was smart and accurate. He was fundamentally sound, which means he threw with balance and calm. None of those floaters while backpedaling, none of the Dave Brown-ish happy feet in the pocket.

He played like a polished quarterback who, this being his third full season as starter, is pretty much on schedule.

Soon we will be able to call Manning the "C'' word – consistent – and another "C" word – coaching – will have had a lot to do with it. Kevin Gilbride and Tom Coughlin will help Manning perfect the short game before they navigate the deep end of the playbook. (And who knows? By the time Manning calls it quits next decade, he might even spare Coughlin the kind of browbeating Tiki has given his old coach.)

Why not? Manning has enough weapons that he can thrive in the intermediate pass attack. He inherited a couple additional toys this season in Steve Smith and Anthony Mix. Manning also presumably gets a full season out of Amani Toomer, whose departure last fall coincided with the team's major-league collapse.

So this is the season Manning becomes the quarterback Ernie Accorsi envisioned when he dealt the ranch for Peyton's bro. This is the season Manning simmers the mass debate – over bar-room beers and radio air waves and Internet chat rooms and media press rooms – about his potential.

He is going to be a great pro.

Manning is far from the only Giants player to draw spirited debate. The way we all carried on, you would have thought Diehl moved to Siberia instead of one place to his left on the offensive line. But it's one giant step for an offensive lineman, the protector of a right-handed quarterback's blind side, the barrier between strong-swift defensive ends and the franchise signal-caller.

We just might have made too big a, pardon the pun, deal over the move. To think, six months ago we were lamenting the release of Luke Petitgout, a beaten-down, penalty-filled package at left tackle. And like the dumped girlfriend, Petitgout's value in the minds of Giants media and fans increased as management ignored free-agent options. We have a left tackle with experience, GM Jerry Reese kept saying in something that resembled a semi-smirk. Diehl, of course, had a whopping two starts at LT under his belt, with a perfectly average 1-1 record in those games.

But Diehl's a fast learner and a willing student. He has worked overtime to become quicker and faster. Diehl will have occasional problems against the league's quickest D-ends. But he will make fans forget Petitgout in a hurry, if only by waiting until the ball is snapped before moving.

Kiwanuka's development will be a bit more pedestrian. Unlike Diehl, who had modest experience at left tackle, Kiwanuka had no pro experience at linebacker. He's had to learn a ton of schemes and techniques that are way different from those at defensive end. But like Diehl, Kiwanuka is a hard worker and a sharp guy who can think on his feet. In one recent encounter, I asked if, as one of the deeper thinkers in the league, he could share his thoughts on the flurry of NFL players gone wild.

"As a deep thinker,'' Kiwanuka replied, not missing a beat, "I'll pass on answering that one.''

Now if he can just decipher a sweep from a play-action to the tight end down the middle with similar accelerated wit, Kiwanuka will be fine.

To think, I've gone this long without delving into two of my favorite Giants, the coach, Coughlin, and the player-coach, Strahan. By all accounts the coach, at least the one being paid like a coach, has mellowed considerably. This isn't to suggest Coughlin is planning any all-night Twister parties for his squad. But he's done two things this preseason that he didn't do his first three seasons in New York.

Smile.

And smile.

Say what you want about Coughlin, but he's smart enough to realize the whole Gen. Patton thing was wearing thin on the guys. Coughlin actually was witnessed smiling considerably more times than two – OK, nine – during training camp. It's uncertain whether he's relaxed the four-minutes-early-is-late mandate for team meetings, but there suddenly seems to be no boundaries for Tommy Cheerful.

And to think, player-coach Strahan missed all the good cheer up in Albany by extending his vacation a month. In fact, Strahan permanently confused the concept of Labor Day by choosing that day to return to work from vacation, while most regularly hard-working folks got the day off.

Sadly, the supposed team leader was embraced by teammates as some kind of conquering hero, at least publicly. We can only hope somebody in that large room of large players gave Strahan a little chin music to the tune of, ‘Not cool dude, not cool. I was dropping the day's cafeteria delicacy on those Albany fields while you were playing footsie with some SoCal hottie.'

Folks around the team seemed to sound like Strahan could get back on the bicycle with minimal practice time. Maybe five years ago. But for 35-year-olds with recent injury histories that skip training camp and the preseason, the NFL regular season isn't like riding a bike. It's like riding a unicycle.

Blindfolded.

With 10 beers in ya.

The guy seems destined for the injury report, which most importantly would allow him to still get paid. But injury or no injury, I get the feeling Strahan's not going to play a significant role in the team's season either way. Nah, if you want to highlight individual players, click on Manning and Diehl and Kiwanuka. While Strahan's pointing to his biceps, they will be pointing the Giants to the playoffs.

Kevin Gleason covers the Giants for the Times Herald-Record in Middletown, N.Y.

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