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Giants are hoping to recapture flag

By Albert R. Breer
August 2, 2010

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ALBANY, N.Y. — It took two years, a rash of injuries, and some aging, but the bandwagons of the Patriots and Giants are finally clear.

Neither is considered a logical pick to win at the highest level in 2010, and that’s a first since the two locked horns in one of the greatest Super Bowls ever played, back in February of 2008.

But while the Patriots throw the club to their young and try to develop a new identity, the team they last played in a Super Bowl spent this offseason trying to recapture theirs.

So beyond all the clichés about “redemption’’ and the pent-up anger over 2009, this New York team has found out something about itself this offseason: The old formula really does work. And the Giants’ inability to sustain their bedrocks through another season showed the team exactly how quickly 5-0 can turn into 8-8.

“People are going to use all kinds of clichés, because it’s clever and it sounds cute,’’ center Shaun O’Hara said, after completing the team’s conditioning run. “Really, this team, I think we really just want to instill that pride in our uniform and pride in Giants football, and the way that we’re used to playing the game.

“That’s really just our mentality, getting back to playing football the way the New York Giants play it.’’

The Giants’ 3-8 collapse in 2009 was more complicated than what can be explained by a couple of sets of stats.

But there are two numbers that really do say a lot. The defense posted just 32 sacks (18th in the NFL) and the running game averaged 114.8 yards per game (17th in the league).

Then look at 2007 — when New York had 21 more sacks and 20 rushing yards more per game — and you get O’Hara’s point.

The way the Giants played in 2009 was most certainly not “playing football the way the New York Giants play it.’’ It’s clear that while some teams look for areas to improve in to make leaps, the Giants need to restore the aspects of their game that once were dominant.

“And it starts with stopping the run and running the ball,’’ seventh-year coach Tom Coughlin said. “That’s where we start, and there’s a definite need to get back to that. [It’s] people doing their job, and physically establishing the ability to control the line of scrimmage on both sides of the ball, which we’ve always talked about, always preached.’’

That’s not to say positive things didn’t come from 2009.

With Brandon Jacobs and Ahmad Bradshaw nicked and the running game struggling, Eli Manning was forced to carry a heavier load and the young receivers had to come of age quickly. So there’s a more mature quarterback, a deep stable of pass-catchers, with Steve Smith, Hakeem Nicks, and Mario Manningham leading the charge, and a more diverse offense overall.

“Our mission is to try and get the running game going again,’’ said offensive coordinator Kevin Gilbride. “But having said that, we’re going to do whatever’s necessary to move the football. So if it turns out that our greatest strength is throwing the ball, I’m certainly not averse to doing that.’’

Defensively, a prideful group is showing a renewed energy under new coordinator Perry Fewell, and getting Justin Tuck, Kenny Phillips, and Aaron Ross back healthy wouldn’t hurt the cause either.

But more than the circumstantial things for the Giants, there’s a feeling that the swagger the club carried in the past was gone in 2009, and that was as big a reason as any that the team’s string of four straight postseason appearances was snapped.

“First thing you’re talking about when you’re talking Giant football is you’re talking about a physical, hit-you-in-the-mouth team,’’ general manager Jerry Reese said. “That’s the first thing I think about when I think about Giant football. Physicality, offensively and defensively. We can run the ball, we have a power running game, and our defense wreaks havoc on the quarterback.

“That wasn’t Giant football last year.’’

O’Hara said earlier in the day that, “Our expectations are no different this year than they have been any other year,’’ but the perception sure has changed.

As the Jets and Giants open the New Meadowlands Stadium this fall, it’s Gang Green that’s grabbing the headlines and landing on the back pages. It makes sense, too. The Jets went to the AFC Championship game last year, made a handful of splashy moves, and have taken on the bravado of their swashbuckling coach.

And in their own division, the Giants aren’t exactly the sexy team, either. The Cowboys have established themselves as the clear favorite, and the Eagles and Redskins made waves by conducting the trade, from the former to the latter, of a franchise QB.

Of course, it’s easy to forget, too, that the Giants haven’t exactly shrunk under these circumstances in the past.

Remember, before Super Bowl XLII, New York was firmly riding shotgun to an undefeated Patriot juggernaut in public’s eye. And all they did then was win a world championship.

“It’s all chatter to me,’’ Reese said. “You guys have got to write something, and you have to start somewhere. It could be the Redskins. It could be the Eagles. Somebody’s got to be predicted to be No. 1, and No. 2, and No. 3. It’s just part of the business. I do know we like being under the radar, playing that underdog role a little bit.’’

And Reese, Coughlin, and Co. can only hope that the similarities to 2007 don’t stop there.

Albert R. Breer can be reached at abreer@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @albertbreer.

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