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Forget respect,

They can't seem to get credit, but Giants are one of last teams standing.

By ERNEST HOOPER

© St. Petersburg Times, published January 9, 2001


photo
[AP photo]
New York Giants quarterback Kerry Collins scrambles during the third quarter of the NFC divisional playoff game.
EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. -- It was just a drive to another regular-season game, but Giants linebacker Micheal Barrow was convinced he and his teammates actually were driving toward the Super Bowl.

What he couldn't understand as he, defensive end Michael Strahan and defensive tackle Cedric Jones made their way to Giants Stadium that fall Sunday was why no one outside the team shared his vision.

"I asked those guys, "What about us on film looks so ugly? Why is everybody talking so bad about us? Do we look that ugly on film?' " Barrow said Monday.

The ugly team has proved to be pretty poison for 13 teams this season, but as New York prepares for Sunday's NFC Championship, again they find themselves as underdogs even though they had the conference's best regular-season record at 12-4.

Some teams were supposedly better than their record, but media prognosticators were convinced the Giants were worse.

It was somewhat understandable. The Giants did not have a remarkable quarterback, or a running back who had rushed for 1,000 yards before 2000. Their offensive line was a makeshift group of veterans. Their defense was solid, but there was no one you would label a future Hall of Famer. And after two mediocre seasons, coach Jim Fassel's job was in jeopardy.

Fassel said he had heard enough, so he guaranteed his team would go to the playoffs before the Nov.26 game against Arizona. The Giants had lost two straight and had only two wins against a team over .500, Philadelphia.

New York made good on the promise by winning five in a row. Even now, however, you could argue the Giants wins were unimpressive. The list of victories against teams over .500 hasn't grown much. New York beat a fading Washington team and downed Pittsburgh, which finished 9-7. Philadelphia, whom they beat for the third time in Sunday's divisional playoff game, remains the only playoff team they have outscored.

Fassel had a strong retort for anyone who would suggest the Giants are not among the league's elite.

"The four best teams are playing right now, I don't give a damn what anybody says," Fassel said of the conference championship contenders. "These are the teams that have earned it all the way through with the best records, and they've won consistently. To get here, you have to play well consistently. ... You've got to play consistently well over an extended period of time to get to where we are right now. If you don't do that, you're out.

"Within the framework of what we're talking about, we are (one of the four best teams). We've demonstrated that. If anyone wants to argue about it, we'll argue about it."

Along with the Giants' consistency (they have won nine of their past 11), Barrow said critics also have overlooked the team's work ethic.

"We don't have a team full of four or five or six Pro Bowl players," Barrow said. "We've got guys that clock in and clock out every day. When they put that NY on their helmets, they're ready to play."

The Giants insist they will be ready to play Sunday, and the underdog role will suit them just fine. They have given up trying to shed the label. This is no longer a quest for respect, just a quest for the Super Bowl. In fact, many of the New York players have begun mocking the criticism.

"I know it, we're terrible, we're not going to win, yeah, I'm already knowing what we're going to hear," safety Shaun Williams said. "They're unstoppable."

What amuses Fassel is that the lack of respect has affected other teams. Minnesota may be favored, but it's not because of its porous defense. Baltimore is characterized as a team with no offense, and others still are waiting for Oakland's history of faltering down the stretch to catch up with it.

"I look at it and everybody in the league is using it (the lack of respect)," Fassel said. "You guys probably read the same thing, we get no respect, we get no respect. I think it's just part of being in the NFL right now. It's just part of the scrutiny you live under. Everybody is looking at you and saying this team can't do this or that team can't do that and that's just the way it's handled right now.

"I don't try to play that too hard. I think it's more focusing on us. It's there and we'll talk about it, but you wear yourself out over a period of time on that one."

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