Injuries have backups playing major roles in NFC title game

EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. -- The New York Giants secondary has gotten used to being called the weakest link. It's been that way all year.

With Michael Strahan and Osi Umenyiora on the defensive line and Antonio Pierce in the middle of the linebackers, opposing offenses had to go after someone this year, and it's been the defensive backs.

That won't change in the NFC title game against the Green Bay Packers (14-3). Brett Favre will try to exploit the banged-up group with some packages that include five receivers.

"We were a target last week against Dallas," cornerback Sam Madison said. "We were a target the week before. We're always going to be a target. We got a couple of old guys, a lot of young guys and a lot of guys you think don't have a lot of confidence. But the last couple of weeks, we've come through."

They may be facing their biggest test to date Sunday at Lambeau Field.

Madison and rookie Aaron Ross, the top cornerbacks, are both hurt.

Madison has missed the last two games with a pulled stomach muscle that has made it hard to laugh. He has not practiced this week and it seems unlikely that he'll play Sunday.

Coach Tom Coughlin, however, refused to rule him out for the game, saying he was 'optimistic' that he might play.

Ross, the first-round draft pick from Texas, had his right shoulder pop out of its joint twice in the 21-17 win over the Cowboys last Sunday. He will play wearing a brace.

Corey Webster, who lost his starting job in the third game of the season because of poor play, has taken over for Madison and played well, intercepting a Jeff Garcia pass in the end zone in the wild-card win over Tampa Bay.

Safety is a little more solid with Gibril Wilson and James Butler starting and rookie Michael Johnson backing them up.

Defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo was a little concerned making his game plan. The obvious dilemma was to either make a plan to best attack the Packers' offense or come up with one that might help the secondary a little.

"I guess I would be lying if I didn't say there was some concern and you think about some change," Spagnuolo said. "But if you're too far from what you are and what you do, I think you can get into trouble that way, too."

Throughout most of the season, Spagnuolo has applied as much pressure as possible on the opposing quarterback. That has not changed in recent weeks.

In fact, the pressure has helped the secondary.

New York had a sack and 11 quarterback hits against Garcia in a 24-14 win two weeks ago.

Garcia finished 23-of-39 for 207 yards and two interceptions, the second by veteran R.W. McQuarters, who has gotten more playing time with the injuries and sealed both playoff wins with picks.

"The guys in the secondary have to step up and make plays," McQuarters said. "Favre isn't going to stop throwing the ball because we have injuries. They are trying to win like us. Any mismatch they are going to try to exploit, just like we are."

Dallas had a great chance to take advantage of the secondary last week after Ross was forced to leave the game early in the second half.

With Madison out and backup Kevin Dockery sidelined with a hip injury, McQuarters moved into the starting spot and rookie Geoffrey Pope was forced to become the nickel back.

Pope spent the regular season on the practice squad and was signed to the roster for the playoffs. His first action came in the conference semifinal at Dallas, highlighted by being on the field for the final series.

"On that last drive, I fully expected to get four passes thrown my way," Pope said of his expectations of Dallas quarterback Tony Romo. "From what I understand, he wanted to go my way but he had to check down because I had good coverage."

The Giants limited Romo to 18-of-36 passing for 201 yards and an interception. He was also sacked twice and hit eight times while passing.

Favre won't be easy to stop. The 38-year-old was 29-of-38 for 286 yards and three touchdowns in the Packers' 35-13 win over the Giants here on Sept. 16. He hit his first 14 passes in the second half, and threw all of his TDs in the third and fourth quarters.

"We were getting used to a new scheme, getting a feel for each other and Favre found weaknesses and took advantage of it," Butler said. "We're a better team now."

The Giants are still a team with a secondary wearing a target.

"This week we're going against one of the best quarterbacks to play the game and we understand that," Madison said. "We just have to perform the way we've been playing the last couple of weeks and not get into, 'This is this person and this is what he does.' We have to go out and make him beat us."

The Packers are not taking anything for granted.

"We've seen what they've done and how they've produced during the tail end of the season and what they've done on the road," receiver Greg Jennings said. "They have great players in the secondary. They've been able to get the job done up until this point. So who's to say they can't get the job done on Sunday?"

Copyright 2007 by The Associated Press

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