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Patchwork defense helps put Giants in NFC Championship Game

NEW YORK -- When it mattered the most, the New York Giants defense had plenty in reserve on Sunday.

Clinging to a four-point lead in the final 2 minutes and with Dallas near midfield, the New York Giants managed to stop the league's second-highest scoring offense with a defense seemingly held together with spare parts.

Michael Strahan began the drive on the sideline after tweaking his groin, and only re-entered the game after fellow defensive end Justin Tuck left with an injury. A defensive backfield already missing three regulars relied on Geoffrey Pope, a rookie from Howard who hadn't played a down in an NFL game before Sunday.

Television viewers weren't the only ones who noticed Strahan on the Giants sideline when quarterback Tony Romo led the Cowboys to the line of scrimmage with 1:50 left.

"I noticed that and that's when I saw No. 71 (Dave Tollefson) up there," guard Chris Snee said. "I immediately said: 'Where the hell is Strahan?' I noticed Osi (Umenyiora) was taped up, I don't know what body part, but when you are on this roster and you are called to step up, you have to do it and they did."

The tense sequence was symbolic of a season that teetered on the brink of collapse early on, then developed enough momentum at the right time to catapult the Giants to within a win of the Super Bowl for the first time since the 2000 season.

"It has to do with both talent and character," Giants coach Tom Coughlin said Monday as the Giants began to prepare for Sunday's NFC championship game at Green Bay. "It always does. And it has to do with this group of men who have come together as a team and fought their way through pretty much anything that's been thrown their way."

In contrast to the other three conference finalists, the Giants' path featured numerous twists and turns, including:

» An 0-2 start that would have been 0-3 if not for a goal-line stand in the final minute at Washington to preserve a 24-17 victory.

» Season-ending injuries to the team's then-leading rusher (Derrick Ward), Pro Bowl tight end (Jeremy Shockey) and starting outside linebacker (Mathias Kiwanuka), plus rookie safety Craig Dahl (ACL), who had filled in when James Butler was injured.

» A 22-10 loss to Washington on Dec. 16 that temporarily denied the Giants a playoff berth and featured a dreadful 18-for-52 performance by quarterback Eli Manning.

» Injuries to center Shaun O'Hara and cornerback Sam Madison in a 38-35 loss to New England in the regular-season finale that forced both starters to miss the wild-card game against Tampa Bay the following week.

Madison strained his abdominal muscle and was joined on the sideline Sunday by Kevin Dockery (hip flexor). Then rookie Aaron Ross, who had won the starting left cornerback job early in the season, left with a shoulder injury early in the second half.

That left it up to Pope, who was signed to the practice squad in September and elevated to the active roster on Dec. 31, to step in on passing downs.

"I was a little nervous at first, but A.P. (Antonio Pierce) told me to 'Relax, we will get you the calls and the checks, and just play, man, you have been making plays all year and that is why they activated you,"' Pope said.

Coughlin said he was hopeful that Ross could return to practice this week. The prognosis for Dockery may not be as encouraging, as he was still walking with a crutch last Friday.

Strahan said he took himself out of the game as a precaution.

"It was one of those situations where I could risk going out there and pulling it and it would not have helped for next week, or I could have let Dave Tollefson get in there and play a little bit," he said. "He went in there and did well. It just shows we have some depth."

It remains to be seen whether that will be enough to succeed against a Green Bay team that handled the Giants 35-13 at Giants Stadium on Sept. 16 and is 8-2 at home in the postseason under quarterback Brett Favre.

The Packers aren't the only ones with momentum on their side, however.

"Everybody has talked all year long about how did you guys turn it around after 0-2," said cornerback R.W. McQuarters, whose interception with 9 seconds left Sunday ended the Cowboys' last hope. "Defense is like a relationship. You have a new defensive coordinator, new defense, new personnel. Things just don't happen in minicamp and training camp. It takes time. We've tried to get everyone on the same page even if they weren't a starter. If we all get on the same page, we have a chance to win."

Copyright 2007 by The Associated Press

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