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Depth perception: Giants' complete roster makes them true contenders

EAST RUTHERFORD, New Jersey -- It clicked when wide receiver Mario Manningham -- the guy who could barely finagle his way onto the field last season as a rookie -- caught a quick pass on the right sideline from Eli Manning and shook three Redskins en route to a 30-yard touchdown in Sunday's 23-17 season-opening victory over Washington.

Think about it.

Tiki Barber goes away, Brandon Jacobs has you at hello. Michael Strahan retires and Osi Umenyiora gets hurt, Justin Tuck becomes a household name.

There's no way Manningham, all 5-foot-11, 183 pounds of him, physically replaces the 6-5, 232-pound Plaxico Burress, but he came up with some plays that Burress made when he wasn't hurt, suspended, on trial and in uniform. Steve Smith, 5-11, 195, might not be as big as Amani Toomer, but he worked the middle of the field -- fearlessly -- like Toomer did.

This is just what the Giants do.

One game certainly shouldn't cast solutions to all of New York's concerns about its wide receivers -- especially since promising rookie Hakeem Nicks left Giants Stadium with a boot on his left foot while on crutches -- but it should make you think about the franchise's ability to replace productive parts with productive parts.

"It's a (good job) by the coaches," said Tuck, a defender one Redskins player said was so vastly improved last season that he was lucky to ever win one-on-one blocking matchups after having his way with him in the past. "At a lot of positions we're two or three deep. That's a lot to (GM) Jerry Reese and his staff scouting and getting good personnel. Second of all, the coaches are coaching these guys to be ready to play.

"It also says something about the individuals. Sometimes you could have a guy who's third string and he might say to himself, 'I'm not going to play so why listen to this or why take this drill seriously?' For us and these young guys, they really go after (it in) practice and work their butts off and they make it work."

Manningham had four catches for 26 yards as a rookie. He nearly matched his season total for receptions with three against the Redskins and more than doubled his yardage output (58 yards). The numbers are hardly Burress-like, but with seven players catching passes, there are only a certain number of balls to go around.

While Manning's effectiveness spreading the ball around will matter against defenses who might rarely double-team any individual receiver, what the distribution truly proved is that he has confidence throwing the ball to his unheralded corps. With Burress, Manning knew he could lob passes into the area code of the rangy speedster and there was a good chance a play would be made.

When Burress accidentally shot himself in the leg last season and didn't return, Manning's safety net was gone. Manning tried to force too many throws and that resulted in too many mistakes and a loss to underdog Philadelphia in the playoffs. Now, at least based off this season opener -- and the Giants' recent history of replacing playmakers -- Manning seems to have registered some trust in the guys who can make him look every bit worth the $97.5 million contract extension he signed this summer.

"We rotate in a lot of guys and the receivers did well," Manning said. "Mario had a great play. Everybody's doing some good things. We just have to continue to learn."

One of the things Manning needs to take into account besides having faith in his wide receivers is knowing he has a defense there to clean up any mistakes. That was proven late in the game when Manning threw an interception that Redskins cornerback DeAngelo Hall returned 18 yards to New York's 11-yard line. The Giants yielded just two yards and forced a field goal. Washington pulled to 17-10, but a touchdown could have yanked the teeth out of the vise the Giants held around the Redskins most of the game.

Tuck came up with a huge sack on the series, in part, because the interior of the defense pushed the pocket and quarterback Jason Campbell into his direction. The defense is nothing to be toyed with, especially now that Umenyiora is back and free-agent linebacker Michael Boley joins the team next week after serving a one-game suspension.

And on the issue of replacing people, New York also lost defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo, now the coach of the St. Louis Rams. They replaced him with Bill Sheridan, who came up with an aggressive game plan that kept the Redskins off balance and consistently unsure of themselves.

Umenyiora highlighted his return to action after missing all of last season with a knee injury with a second-quarter sack, forced fumble and 37-yard return for a touchdown that gave New York a 17-0 lead. It was an incredibly athletic play that only the special ones can make. It was also a play that made Umenyiora feel more secure in himself, physically, moving forward.

His comeback only heightens the Giants' formula to success. Yes, they have players fill in and perform when someone else is no longer there. In Umenyiora, they also have one of their best players come back, with a vengeance, to make an already good team better.

The ingredients are in place for New York to make another run to the playoffs. It's Week 1 and a million things could change the landscape, so it's far too early to declare their place atop the NFC or even the ultra-rugged NFC East. The Giants just seem a little more braced for adversity than a lot of other teams in the NFL.

The most interesting thing about the Giants' victory over a good opponent -- one that has a lot of questions to be answered, especially on offense -- wasn't that they felt cozy with how the receivers played or that Manning was better than solid or that their defense was overwhelming at times.

It was that they had been scoreboard watching.

New York's game started three hours after division foes Dallas and Philadelphia kicked off. Players were well aware that the Cowboys and Eagles beat the brakes off NFC South opponents Tampa Bay and Carolina, respectively. So they're probably feeling pretty good about themselves too.

The Giants play Dallas in the regular-season grand opening of Cowboys Stadium next Sunday and they said they must execute better on offense to win. This from a team that dominated the time of possession 36 minutes to 24 against the Redskins and limited Washington to just 50 offensive plays.

Like replacing players, there's no looking back with the Giants. If there was, Manningham might not have gotten a chance -- and the Giants might not have started the season with a victory.

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