Young Giants follow veteran leaders Strahan, Toomer to Super Bowl

Glendale, Ariz. -- On a team with rising young stars making key contributions, it is the New York Giants' two oldest players on each side of the ball -- and its lone holdovers from Super Bowl XXXV -- who are leading the way.

Defensive end Michael Strahan, 36, and wide receiver Amani Toomer, 33, have played instrumental roles this season in turning what could have easily been an abysmal season into one that could end in glory in Super Bowl XLII on Sunday.

Long accustomed to being a team leader and veteran influence for the younger players, Strahan seems to be enjoying his role as a mentor in this, his 15th season, one that came perilously close to not happening.

An injury-marred 2006, in which he played just nine games and had his lowest sack total (three) since his rookie season, had Strahan pondering retirement.

His rocky relationship with coach Tom Coughlin (which has since improved) didn't help matters, and when training camp rolled around, Strahan was absent.

After a lengthy holdout that lasted into September, he finally decided to pick up his cleats and go at it for another season.

The start was less than ideal, though, as Strahan came off the bench in a 45-35, season-opening loss to the Cowboys. He then produced only one tackle while starting in a 35-13 Week 2 loss against the Packers.

In the days following the Green Bay loss, Strahan and his teammates vented their frustration to the media, and the season appeared close to falling apart after just two games.

Strahan lambasted reporters for bringing up the past, saying, "We're not worried about last week. I guess that's what everybody here gets caught up on. Last week is over. A lot of you covered this long enough and I've played long enough to realize the more you hang on to what happened in the past the more likely you are to repeat it, and in our case you don't want to repeat."

The forward-thinking mantra set forth by Strahan seemed to inspire the Giants, specifically his defensive teammates.

The unit that after two games was ranked 29th and had given up 80 points, the most for the franchise in consecutive games since 1971, was responsible for delivering the team's first victory in Week 3.

Strahan's defensive line stuffed the Washington Redskins on consecutive running plays from the 1-yard line with under a minute to go, preserving a 24-17 victory, the first of six consecutive wins.

At the center of that turnaround was Strahan and his insistence to keep looking ahead.

"A game like the Dallas game, the Green Bay game, that's a time when we really pulled together and put our foot down and said we're gonna be a top defensive line, we think we're the best defensive line in the league, and we think that we have a winning team," defensive tackle Barry Cofield said on Tuesday at Super Bowl Media Day. "We're like a bunch of brothers. We have the older brother in Strahan and I'm only 23, so a big age difference. But we're all similar guys, and we have a lot of fun together."

Defensive end Justin Tuck said he looks to Strahan and fellow end Osi Umenyiora for "being able to pick their brain about things, watching how they prepare for football games, how they take care of their body during the season."

Tackle Fred Robbins, an eight-year veteran, said Strahan's success rubs off on his younger teammates, "You wanna learn from guys like that. I think that's the key. Everyday, you be around them, you start learning the things they know to get where they are."

While Strahan helped the defense get out of its early slump, it was Toomer who helped the offense snap out of a mid-season swoon and get going in the playoffs.

Mired in a four-game slump in which the team went 2-2 and scored just 64 total points, questions began surfacing again about whether the Giants would suffer the same late-season slide that had afflicted them in recent seasons.

They were 9-5 after the poor stretch and still had not clinched a playoff berth. That's when Toomer stepped up.

He led the team with 99 receiving yards in a Week 16 playoff-clinching win over the Bills, and he never slowed down. He leads the team in postseason receiving yards and receiving touchdowns, and his clutch play has inspired his teammates, including Strahan.

"He's the GOAT as I call him: The greatest of all time in Giants history in all the receiving categories," Strahan said Tuesday. "There's a reason for that -- the consistencey and work ethic and attitude. You see those things and you hope they rub off on a lot of the younger players."

No doubt that it has.

Emerging rookie Steve Smith, second-year wideout Sinorice Moss and even injured first-year player Brandon London all credited Toomer with helping aid their development.

Said Smith: "Amani is a true veteran. He's been practicing every day since training camp. He knows how to take care of his body and be a real pro and I've been learning from him all season long."

A grinning London, clearly touched by Toomer's guidance, added "Amani's one of the oldest, but he's a big kid and he'll joke around. ... They're great guys to learn from (Toomer and starting WR Plaxico Burress)."

With the undefeated Patriots on tap, the Giants, who came into the season as the third-youngest team in the NFL, will look to draw even more on the experience of Strahan and Toomer.

For their part, the veteran duo is ready to forget the disappointment of a 34-7 loss to the Baltimore Ravens seven years ago in Super Bowl XXXV, and bring New York its first NFL title since 1991.

"I have experience playing in a Super Bowl, but the experience wasn't great, to be honest with you," said Toomer, who caught just two passes for 24 yards in XXXV. "I'm really trying to focus on the fact that the game is what is going to make my experience a lot better this time."

If the Giants are able to make his experience better and cap off their magical season, it will have been the old vets Strahan and Toomer who deserve the credit for keeping the team together at its darkest moments.

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