FLORHAM PARK, N.J. -- Just like the last time the New York Giants were favored to lose a big game to New England, they have an alarming injury on their hands, one they are no more eager to discuss than Bill Belichick is to sing a Sinatra tune while watching the last two minutes of Super Bowl XLII.
But as talented as he is, Ahmad Bradshaw isn't Plaxico Burress any more than Giants-Patriots in Foxborough, Mass., is Giants-Patriots in Glendale, Ariz., where the deciding touchdown was scored by a guy who had more business recuperating in a hospital bed than he did celebrating in the end zone.
So much has happened to Burress between then and now -- the accidental, self-inflicted gunshot wound, the hell-on-Earth prison term, the decision to take $3 million of the New York Jets' money after his release -- and yet time and fate haven't conspired against this one enduring truth:
Burress was by far the toughest Giant on that Super Bowl field.
"Going into that game," Burress said Thursday, "I was beat up so bad I didn't think I was going to play, leading right up to the kickoff. But I eventually made it through."
He made it through with two bad ankles, a separated shoulder, a torn ligament in his pinky, and the injury that scared Tom Coughlin and inspired the Giants to embark on a Nixonian, Belichickian coverup -- a sprained medial collateral ligament in his left knee suffered during a fall in a hotel shower five days before the game.
Four seasons later, Burress maintained he's not personally invested in the first meaningful Giants-Patriots meeting since his 13-yard touchdown catch with 35 seconds left denied Belichick and Tom Brady a 19-0 season. "I'm not worried about that game," he said, "who wins it or anything like that. I'm worried about the Buffalo Bills."
But Plax's old team can help Plax's new team. A Jets victory in Buffalo and a Giants victory in Foxborough will create a three-way tie for first in the AFC East, and raise the stakes for the Jets' Sunday night game against the Pats on Nov. 13.
Rex Ryan needs Burress to be the player he was against San Diego (three touchdowns) and the player he was for the Giants, if the Jets are to finally topple New England, win the division and earn at least one postseason game at home.
Toward that end, Ryan unnerved his fan base a bit Thursday when he disclosed Burress was limited in practice due to a sore lower back. "We don't want to run him into the ground," the coach said, and no, that wouldn't be a good idea.
Burress is 34, still trying to find his legs after those 21 months in prison and still trying to find a connection with his quarterback, Mark Sanchez, on something other than a 3-yard scoring pass. If Jets fans are worried about Plax's lingering rust and his frustrating search for real chemistry with Sanchez, they shouldn't sweat his threshold for pain.
Even when he was a Monday-to-Saturday handful for Coughlin, Eli Manning and the rest, showing up late for practices and meetings and forever honing his high-maintenance act, Burress was willing to play hurt on any given Sunday.
In 2007, his left ankle still sore from surgery, Burress declined season-ending surgery on a torn ligament in his right ankle and played on. He would separate his shoulder in sub-human conditions in Green Bay in an NFC title game he dominated with 11 catches for 154 yards, and still arrive in Glendale ready to roll.
Burress publicly predicted a Giants upset, as did co-owner Steve Tisch. But Tisch didn't have to cover the tab, not the way Plax did, and when the receiver sprained his MCL, Giants co-owner John Mara said, "It was just a feeling of disbelief. I mean, you've got to be kidding me. It's the week of the Super Bowl, and you're telling me he fell in the freakin' shower and may not play?"
The Giants did what they could to keep Burress' fresh injury from the Patriots and the news media. When they finally disclosed that Burress had a knee issue, the Giants acted as if it was a flare-up from an old injury and as if the right ankle remained the far greater concern.
"And then we're watching that Friday practice before the game," Mara said, "with Plaxico out and David Tyree dropping everything Eli threw him. I remember thinking to myself, 'How in the world are we going to beat these guys?'"
During that practice, Giants general manager Jerry Reese sidled up to Mara and said, "We're going to win this game; I guarantee it."
A third promise of victory from the Giants' side, but again, only one from a figure who would actually participate in the game -- Plax.
By the morning of Super Bowl Sunday, Burress already had taken various shots and pills for his injuries, and Coughlin feared the worst. The coach rose at 5:30 a.m., started working on game plans with his 6-foot-5 receiver and without him, and got some much needed comic relief when his young grandchildren barged in 90 minutes later and began doodling and drawing animals all over his notes.
Coughlin wasn't so loose when he arrived at University of Phoenix Stadium. He was prepared to put Burress on the inactive list when the team trainer, Ronnie Barnes, broke the news that the receiver would try to give it a go.
"I wasn't going to ask any more questions," Coughlin told me once. "I didn't go talk to Plax, didn't even look at him, didn't give him the ol' 'Can you give me a play here or there?' Once I heard he could play, that was all I wanted to know."
Burress took one painkilling injection in his left knee in the pregame and a second one at halftime. In his book, "Giant, The Road to the Super Bowl," Burress quotes his physical therapist, Joe Caroccio, as saying he'd never seen another athlete play with the injuries Plax had.
So at his locker Thursday, Burress was asked what made him do it.
"Just the element in itself," he said. "Just getting to that point and being able to play for a world championship. You've just got to will yourself to do things you wouldn't be able to normally do. And I made it through."
He couldn't cut to his right against the oblivious Patriots, and he caught a mere two passes on the night. But the second one was the winning teardrop over poor Ellis Hobbs, all 5 feet and 9 inches of him. Hobbs fell for Plax's fake to the right, a pattern the receiver's knee wouldn't allow, and Burress was wide open for the fade.
It was an easy catch, nothing like the absurd play Tyree made when he caught a Manning heave with his helmet. But in the end, Burress was the right Giant to draw confetti from the desert sky.
Coughlin would say he experienced "the fulfillment of a dream come true." Reese, the first black GM to win it all, would say he was proud to stand on the same podium with Doug Williams, the first black quarterback to win it all. Eli, the second Manning in a row to win a Super Bowl MVP award, would say he was proud that Peyton was in the winning locker room, wrapping him in brotherly love.
And Mara, Wellington's boy, would say he was touched by the grace of Bob and Jonathan Kraft, the losing father-and-son team that waited amid the confetti for the trophy presentation to end to offer congratulations.
"That was one of the most incredible things I've ever seen," Mara said.
So was the sight of Burress on the field, winning the game in pain. If almost everything has changed about Plax since that Super Bowl, at least one thing hasn't.
A few days before his new team plays in Buffalo, before his old team reunites with the Patriots, Burress refused to call his back problem an injury. Even as a Jet, he remains one very tough Giant.
Ian O'Connor is the author of "The Captain: The Journey of Derek Jeter." "Sunday Morning With Ian O'Connor" can be heard every Sunday, 9 to 11 a.m. ET on ESPN New York 1050.