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 EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. (AP) -Despite making the playoffs the past two seasons, expectations for the New York Giants aren't that high.
Tiki Barber, the Giants' all-time leading rusher and offensive catalyst, retired for a television career. The wait for Eli Manning to live up to expectations continues. And who knows what to expect from seven-time Pro Bowl defensive end Michael Strahan, if anything.
Then there's the Tom Coughlin factor. The no-nonsense coach is on the hot seat after failing to get past the first round of the playoffs two straight years amid all kinds of turmoil.
If the path gets bumpy again, things could get ugly fast.
That's the Giants, though. They were the defending NFC East champs and considered a legitimate Super Bowl contender a year ago. They got big heads, suffered a couple of injuries, pointed fingers and went 8-8 to barely squeeze into the playoffs.
``One of the things we are striving for this year is playing together as a team,'' center Shaun O'Hara said. ``I think last year we had a lot of individual talent, but I don't know if we played well as a team every Sunday. That's our overall goal as a team, to complement each other in every phase and make it a collective effort.''
Whether the Giants can get back to being a title contender depends on three key issues:
- Can Manning have a consistent season and avoid the big mistakes?
- Can big, bruising Brandon Jacobs do as well as Barber, and stay healthy?
- Will Strahan end a holdout and play a 15th season, and can the defense survive without him?
The Strahan question was the most unexpected. Hours before training camp opened, the NFL's active sacks leader announced he was holding out while he mulled retirement. Five weeks later, and just a little more than a week before the opener at Dallas, he was still mulling his options.
On the field, the offense has shown the potential to carry the Giants, especially if Manning can avoid a third straight second-half slump. Having former quarterbacks coach Kevin Gilbride as the offensive coordinator should help Manning, who is also being tutored by Chris Palmer, another longtime quarterbacks guru.
One thing that has changed is Manning has emerged as one of the leaders of the Giants, thanks in part to Barber.
Barber criticized the quarterback's leadership a few weeks ago during halftime on Sunday night football and Manning fired right back at his former teammate.
Not only did the retort prop him up in the eyes of his teammates, but Manning followed that with good stints against Baltimore and the Jets.
Manning should have plenty of help this season.
David Diehl's ability to move from left guard to left tackle has strengthened the offensive line. It also should help Jacobs use his 6-foot-4, 260-pound frame to run over defenses.
The receiving corps is deep with Plaxico Burress, Amani Toomer, rookie Steve Smith and Sinorice Moss on the field along Pro Bowl tight end Jeremy Shockey. The concern is Burress, who missed much of training camp with ankle and back problems.
``This team came a long way,'' said Toomer, who has returned from major knee surgery. ``There were times early in camp where it was touch and go, but the young guys stepped up and our defense played real well.''
After a dismal performance in the preseason opener, the defense improved under new coordinator Steve Spagnuolo, allowing one touchdown in the next two games.
Justin Tuck, who like Strahan missed a good part of last season with a serious foot injury, has been outstanding filling in at left end. Osi Umenyiora has been a force on the other side.
Mathias Kiwanuka has been adequate making the transition from defensive end to strongside linebacker, and free agent Kawika Mitchell has looked good as weakside linebacker. With Pro Bowler Antonio Pierce in the middle, the linebackers are solid.
The weakness is the secondary, especially with veteran Sam Madison battling a hamstring injury. Rookie cornerback Aaron Ross should provide help at some point.
``This is going to be a team you can be proud of,'' Pierce said. ``I know one thing you love in New York is defense. When I came here from that other team (Washington) I saw the (tradition) at linebacker: Carl Banks, Lawrence Taylor and Harry Carson. But this group is going to work hard and play some ball.''
One area not settled is the kicking job. Neither veteran Lawrence Tynes nor free agent Josh Huston has won it, although Huston has kicked better lately.

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