EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. -- It's tough playing cornerback for the New York Giants, where the defensive line gets all the love and the best cornerback in the league plays for the other New York team. And for much of this season, the Giants' secondary was the team's Achilles' heel -- a near-laughingstock that was famously ridiculed on national TV by Cris Collinsworth and obviously targeted by opposing offenses.
But anyone who's played defensive back in the NFL will tell you how important it is to have a short memory and a ton of confidence, no matter how much attention anyone's paying to you. As the Giants prepare to play the Patriots in Super Bowl XLVI, their secondary remains unbowed and as confident as ever.
"If you keep doing your job, the attention will come," Giants cornerback Corey Webster said Friday. "Me, I think I'm great. I think I'm the best thing out there. I'm sure Aaron Ross feels the same way, and our whole secondary feels the same way. That's how you're supposed to feel when you take that field."
There were certainly times this year when the men in the Giants' secondary could have justifiably felt otherwise. Only three teams gave up more passing yards than the 4,082 the Giants allowed. And while those three -- Green Bay, New Orleans and New England -- were among the very best teams in the league, a number like that still isn't good for your personal or professional pride. After a four-game losing streak in which they allowed an average of 304 passing yards per game, a victory over Dallas in which they allowed 305 more and a loss to the Redskins in which Rex Grossman was 7-for-10 on third downs, the Giants' secondary looked like such an easy target that Mark Sanchez and the Jets threw 59 passes against them in the Christmas Eve game.
That turned out to be a huge mistake, however, as the Giants' secondary was in the process of turning a corner. They blanketed the Jets' receivers, won that game and haven't lost since. And while the defense still lives and dies with the performance of its pass-rushing linemen, the performance of the secondary has been a big part of the five-game win streak that has landed the Giants in the Super Bowl.
"Our play speaks for itself," said Giants safety Antrel Rolle, who does more than his own fair share of speaking. "There are a lot of reasons we've played better. We're more focused. We're on the same page with our defensive coordinator. And we're on the same page with each other, and that's the biggest improvement."
The enduring images of the Giants' secondary from last Sunday's NFC Championship victory over the 49ers are the two times San Francisco tight end Vernon Davis got behind them for long touchdowns. But true to the defensive back's code, the Giants' DBs were pointing out this week that Davis only caught one other pass, that the 49ers only caught 12 total and that six of those were caught by the running back. Safety Deon Grant said the first Davis touchdown wasn't the result of Rolle getting beat, but rather the result of zone coverage that wasn't executed correctly, and that the Giants' safeties and cornerbacks relish the challenge of slowing down the Patriots' great tight ends the way they did the Packers' Jermichael Finley two weeks ago in Green Bay.
"Those tight ends are more like tight end/wide receiver combinations, so it falls right into what we do," Grant said. "We have safeties who can cover, corners who can cover. When we're matched up against these best tight ends out there, we don't want to play zone. We want to play man-to-man and show off our skills."
You can't play defensive back in the NFL without that level of confidence, whether justified or not. And the Giants' defensive backs are a case study in forgetting the bad stuff quickly. If cornerback Aaron Ross had wallowed in early-season struggles that got him benched in Week 2, the Giants would have been floundering even more than they already were on pass defense through November and early December. But Ross shook it off and helped fill the gap created by preseason injuries to Terrell Thomas and first-round draft pick Prince Amukamara.
"Aaron was a guy they drafted in the first round," Grant said. "He was a guy who was here when they won the Super Bowl the last time. And now you're seeing that same first-round guy and that same guy who helped win that Super Bowl. He's back. He's healthy. And he's the old Aaron Ross again."
Plenty of swagger and no desire to look back. That's the way these Giants' defensive backs are built. When practice ended Friday, Rolle shared a friendly handshake with Collinsworth, who'd called the Giants' coverage "amateurish" and said Rolle had been "barbecued" by Dez Bryant in the first game against the Cowboys. In the days following that game, Rolle was critical of such analysis and explained in detail what had really happened on the play in question. But on Friday, when Collinsworth showed up for practice as part of NBC's preparations for the Super Bowl, all was forgotten.
"We're cool," Rolle said. "There's no hard feelings in this league. Collinsworth and I, we've always gotten along."
The defensive back's code: What happened in the past stays in the past. And none of it matters to the Giants now.