Lengthy Road Trip Provides Giant Test

Eight players who started for the Giants in Super Bowl XLII are no longer with the team. Rapid turnover has long been the way of the NFL. Teams either reload intelligently or fail miserably.

The Giants' latest makeover is hardly extreme. But we will get a decent idea of what the Giants are made of in the season's first month. Three straight away games, starting at Dallas, will provide a feel for what they have both inside the locker room and inside their collective soul.

The Giants swallowed up their road schedule in 2007, ultimately winning a record 10 straight away games on the way to the Super Bowl title. And who can forget where the first real sniffs of Super Bowl XLII emanated for Big Blue, taking the divisional playoff in Big D after owner Jerry Jones supplied his squad with NFC title-game tickets.

But that was two years ago, an NFL eternity. These Giants still have most of their core players. They have a deep defensive line, a valued running game and a winning quarterback. The question is whether they still have the kind of inner focus and toughness it takes to win consistently on the road.

Does Domenik Hixon bring down Eli Manning's well-thrown deep ball amid a hand-waving cornerback and 75,000 fans screaming in the background?

Do younger players such as Terrell Thomas and Mario Manningham and Hakeem Nicks, already out a couple weeks because of injury, help form the depth needed to win a Super Bowl?

Do newcomers such as Michael Boley and Chris Canty and Rocky Bernard ignore the distractions of travel and the isolation of performing in enemy territory?

David Diehl was at his locker last week answering questions about the team's decisive loss in Dallas last season. But the real question was how the Giants would respond in Dallas, and elsewhere, this season.

"Those little momentum swings, if you don't come back from it right way, on the road they can be devastating,'' Diehl said. "That's the sign of a true team – being mentally tough.''

The Giants aced their first test by disposing of Washington in the opener. But the game also brought into focus the task ahead. Third running back Danny Ware and Hicks, a much-needed wideout, went down with injuries that left them out for at least two weeks. Now it was Thomas' turn to start. Second-week waiver pickup Gartrell Johnson would have to fill the spot vacated by Ware.

"That's something that you don't lose,'' Diehl said of the Giants' road toughness. "That's something that's developed over years. This is our sixth season (with most of the same offensive line) now. We have the same guys fighting out there. That's where the leadership comes in by rallying around the young guys.''

The fun begins on Sunday night in Dallas and its ridiculously large stadium, perhaps the only structure bigger than the owner's ego. Dallas represented one of two legitimate road losses for the Giants last season, not counting the giveaway season-finale at Minnesota.

But Big D provided another reminder for Giants fans. It was where the Giants began making mass believers of their faithful in the 2007 playoffs.

The Giants have the pieces in place for another Super Bowl run. But they must develop a killer instinct. They must discover the throat-on-neck mentality that turns a 17-0 lead over Washington into 30-0, not 17-10 with a whole quarter of football remaining.

The Giants must solve their short-yardage struggles that cropped up again in the opener. It's become one of the great NFL mysteries that one of best offensive lines and running games in football can't get a yard when needed.

Eli Manning was spot on in his assessment of the third-and-short struggles. He's far too polite to call out offensive coordinator Kevin Gilbride. But Manning alluded to play-calling as a major factor.

The Giants converted their first two third-down situations against Washington – third-and-four and third-and-seven – by completing passes to Steve Smith and Manningham. But when it came to the next third-down chance, third-and-one from the Redskins 11, Ahmad Bradshaw ran for no gain. Field goal.

It began a pattern. On the next third-down play the following drive, third-and-six, Manning again found Smith, this time for 17 yards. But on the very next third-down play, yet another third-and-one, Brandon Jacobs was tackled for no gain at the Redskins 3. The play worked so well, the Giants ran it again on fourth down, and Jacobs again was dropped for no gain. Loss of downs.

"Maybe you can't throw it that far down the field – (defenders) are going to sit on things a little bit more – but we've still got good routes we can run in those situations,'' Manning said.

The Giants had one more third-and-one against Washington, on their first possession of the second half, and Jacobs was brought down for a 5-yard loss.

Converting short-yardage plays becomes more challenging amid 75,000 loud mouths on the road. The unit must exhibit unerring focus and concentration. The line must provide the right blocks and the back must locate the typically tiny opening.

"We are walking into this season with a huge chip on our shoulders,'' linebacker Danny Clark said. "We felt we were one of the best teams (last season) and we didn't get it done. You have to maintain that chip, especially on the road.''

Since 1990, 106 NFL teams have played three straight regular-season road games. Only seven of them have won all three games. Exactly half of the 106 went 1-2.

The Giants won 10 straight games on the road two seasons ago. Now they get three straight road games to conclude the first quarter of the 2009 season, to see if they have a little of '07 in them.

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

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