EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. (AP) -For the last few weeks, Antonio Pierce has been using the New York Giants' awful start to motivate himself and his teammates.
``We want to keep playing like we're 0-2 right now,'' the Giants' middle linebacker says every week.
That won't work much longer as New York continues to climb toward the top of the NFC, with five straight wins and a game in London next week against the winless Dolphins.
At the rate they're going, they could clinch a playoff spot not too long after New England clinches, which should be sometime around Thanksgiving.
OK, back up.
The Giants are not the Patriots, not even close.
Still, the 33-15 win over San Francisco Sunday was their fifth straight and they're playing differently this season. They're winning 1980s Giants style with hard-nosed running and a solid defense. That allows Eli Manning to play Phil Simms 20 years ago, handing off and throwing for just 146 yards, because that's all he has to do.
These Giants also are developing a fearsome defensive reputation, something they had in the 1980s when Bill Parcells and Bill Belichick were the coaches of a unit led by Lawrence Taylor.
So there was a theory entering this game that 49ers coach Mike Nolan may have chosen to sit Alex Smith, his young starting quarterback, against a New York defense that in the last five games has 25 of its 27 sacks, a complete reversal from when they were 0-2 and had already allowed 80 points. They got six more sacks on Sunday against Trent Dilfer, including a perfecta in the third quarter by Osi Umenyiora - a sack, strip, fumble recovery and 75-yard return for a touchdown.
Smith, who had missed the past two games with a separated shoulder, skirted around the issue of whether Nolan may have decided not to risk him against Umenyiora, Michael Strahan, Justin Tuck and the rest of the New York pass rushers. Dilfer was declared the starter last Wednesday after it appeared Smith was going to play.
``If I was healthy, I was going to play. If the shoulder was right, I was going to be out there playing,'' Smith said after the game. ``I don't know if the pressure and the sacks had anything to do with it. ... I didn't feel I could go out there and be effective enough. I can go out there and throw routes.''
So Dilfer went out and took the beating, six sacks and numerous hits and hurries. Pierce nearly spoiled it with two late hits, including one ``because I thought he was still wriggling and trying to get away so I just came in.''
The 35-year-old Dilfer has seen this before. He was the quarterback of the 2000 Baltimore Ravens, who beat the Giants in the 2001 Super Bowl with relentless pressure.
He wasn't suggesting these Giants are as good as those Ravens. Not even close.
But he was impressed by the aggressive schemes installed by Steve Spagnuolo, the new coordinator, who in passing situations uses four defensive ends as down linemen - Strahan, Umenyiora, Tuck and Matthias Kiwanuka, who is technically a linebacker now
``They do some pretty impressive things,'' Dilfer says. ``They bring enough pressures right when you think you're getting comfortable. They do a good job making adjustments and overloading you. By the end of the deal, they are going to be one of the better defensive teams in the league.''
Obviously, that's pending good health, a given for every team in the NFL.
Last season, the Giants started 6-2 and finished 8-8, sneaking into the playoffs as a wild card the last week. One New York columnist was walking around asking Giants on Sunday if that might happen again.
Yes, it might happen again if as many people get hurt as got hurt last season.
``Injuries. We don't have them now and hopefully won't get them,'' said Strahan, who missed most of the second half last season along with several other starters.
The other half of the equation is that New York plays in the NFC, where no one is dominant and a lot of teams, like the four in the NFC West, aren't very good.
Maybe the Giants beat out Dallas and Washington in the East, maybe they don't, but the way they're playing, they're a good bet to make the playoffs one way or another.
That would save coach Tom Coughlin's job, something not every Giant (nor every Giant fan) wants to see.
Then again, it would be a lot better than when they were 0-2 and going nowhere.

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