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Defensive stars on sidelines as Patriots, Giants meet

FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- Asante Samuel is back with the Patriots and preparing for the regular season. Michael Strahan remains away from the Giants and may never play again.

While their teammates wrap up the exhibition season against each other Thursday night, the two defensive stars who held out of training camp almost certainly will be on the sidelines.

Samuel, who shared the NFL lead with 10 interceptions last season, signed a one-year, $7.79 million contract on Tuesday for his fifth season with New England and has been given a roster exemption.

Strahan, a seven-time Pro Bowl player and the league's all-time sacks leader, has been mulling retirement and has missed New York's entire camp. He spoke Tuesday morning with Giants general manager Jerry Reese and a decision is expected late this week.

Justin Tuck has filled in well in place of Strahan at left end and the defensive line has played solidly in the last two games. Mathias Kiwanuka has moved from defensive line to strongside linebacker.

Samuel's return would send Randall Gay, who has been filling in, back to a role in the nickel defense.

"I've never been in a situation like that," Samuel said of missing so much practice time. "It's new for me and I'm ready for the challenge, though. Hopefully, I'll overcome it."

He could be in the starting lineup for the Patriots' season opener Sept. 9 at the New York Jets. The Giants begin the season that night at Dallas.

"I just don't think you can prepare your team for the season by just focusing it totally on your preseason opponents," New England coach Bill Belichick said. "There are going to be things that are going to come up during the year where we just want to cover it ... and then we allocate time to our preseason opponents."

Many starters play sparingly or not at all in the last exhibition game.

"I don't know how much we are going to play," said Giants quarterback Eli Manning, who has been playing well. "What is really our goal is to go down there and get one good drive and try to get a score. That probably would be it. Run the ball, get some first downs and go down and get a touchdown or a field goal. We want to stay sharp and in tune."

New York (1-2) has been hit hard by injuries during the exhibition season. In last Saturday's 20-12 loss to the Jets, weakside linebacker Kawika Mitchell pulled a groin muscle.

"The whistle is still going to blow. The ball is going to be kicked off," said Reggie Torbor, who is expected to start for Mitchell. "That's the way you have to look at it. When the guys can get back, they will get back. We just have to hold it down."

The place-kicking job appears to be the only one still open on the Giants. Veteran Lawrence Tynes and free agent Josh Huston are competing for it.

For the Patriots (1-2), Tom Brady started and played midway through the third quarter of their 24-7 win at Carolina last Friday. Last season, he didn't play at all in the last exhibition game.

Randy Moss could miss his fourth straight game with a hamstring injury that Belichick said is improving, leaving another newcomer, Donte' Stallworth, as the top wide receiver.

"There's still a lot of things I've got to work on," Stallworth said. "I missed the early part of camp" for physical reasons.

The Patriots and Giants meet again this year in what should be a much more important game -- the last one of the regular season.

"It's good to go against a player you will see later in the year," New York guard Chris Snee said. "Obviously, he is going to watch the film and make adjustments to you."

But so much can happen between then and now: the loss of key players to injuries, the improvement of young players, the return of star players.

"Certainly, we play close attention to the Giants because they're on our schedule this year, but then again, it is the last game," Belichick said. "It's so far away that there's going to be a lot of changes."

Copyright 2007 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.

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