'Dogs' must have their day vs. Dallas

EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. -- Justin Tuck motioned toward the names of old New York Giants on the locker room wall, toward one name in particular, Lawrence Taylor, who once famously advised his teammates to play "like a bunch of crazed dogs."

Tuck is not a "crazed dogs" kind of guy. But if he's a thoughtful leader in an often thoughtless sport, his dignified presence shouldn't be mistaken for a lack of fire. Tuck badly wants to be remembered as a great defensive player for a franchise forever identified by its great defensive teams.

"You're always reminded about that legacy," he said Thursday, "about the people who have played here, the defense, the chants. Whenever my career's over, I want to be thought of as part of that legacy."

He sure helped his cause against the New York Jets, wishing away too many injuries to count and winning the mind-over-body battle that restored the Giants' place in the market and landed them in a divisional title game with Dallas. It wasn't LT playing through his torn pectoral muscle against the New Orleans Saints in 1988, but it was close enough.

So right behind Tuck comes Osi Umenyiora, suddenly shaking free from the death grip of his high ankle sprain and, better yet, declaring that Jason Pierre-Paul deserves to remain the starter. (There goes that silly, selfless Osi again, always thinking of others first.)

Out of the clear blue, the Giants could carry the NFL's most lethal weapon -- a front line loaded with fierce pass rushers -- into the postseason tournament, assuming they hit Tony Romo enough Sunday night to earn their way in.

It's the Giants' last great hope to shock the world like they did in the 2007 season, back when Pierre-Paul was a gangly freshman at the College of the Canyons. Fans love to summon the memories of Eli Manning and David Tyree in the Super Bowl, but above all, it was the relentless harassment of Tom Brady that made the 18-0 New England Patriots the 18-1 New England Patriots.

This time around, after the subtraction of Michael Strahan and the addition of JPP, the pass rush will again make or break the Giants. Sometimes the NFL is reduced to a mere forum for discussing a quarterback's passer rating or a coach's job security, and there's no doubting the significance of Tom Coughlin's status or Manning's aim.

But Eli can only carry his team so far, and the Giants can only go to the win-one-for-the-gimper well so many times for the injured Coughlin, whose hobble up and down the team's hallways provides a fitting scene for those thinking he's on his last legs.

When the New York Giants are really the New York Giants, it always comes back to their defense, currently ranked 28th in the league. It has to be one of the NFL's very best units for the Giants to beat Dallas and make a most improbable run through the NFC bracket, a run that would lead them back to Lambeau Field.

The Giants won their own Ice Bowl there to get to the Super Bowl and the unbeaten Patriots, and late the following year it looked like they might two-peat as champs. But then Plaxico Burress shot himself, the Giants lost to Philadelphia in the playoffs, and their window of opportunity to claim multiple titles appeared to slam shut when they missed the postseason in 2009 and 2010.

"The window might've shrunk a little bit because we got a little older," Tuck said, "but it definitely didn't close. We still have the talent in this room and the resources to make a run, and that's what we're trying to do."

Can a defense pick up an injured Tuck one week and an injured Umenyiora the next, expect JPP to keep traumatizing opponents with his Play-Doh arms, and make a dramatic climb from the bottom of the league to the top? In a quiet moment Thursday, Perry Fewell, the defensive coordinator, was asked if his Giants had the makings of a championship-level unit.

"I think we have some championship-level parts," he said. "I don't know if we have all the parts in place."

At least he was being honest.

"We have better stability at the linebacker position than we've had throughout the course of the season," Fewell continued, "and so we've helped ourselves a little bit there. But we're still finding ourselves in the secondary.

"I think we have the parts back there that can be a championship-level team, but with the offense that we're facing now, we have to definitely raise our level of play to beat the Cowboys. If we respond well on Sunday, I look for this defense to take off."

The defense has no choice here. Fewell said that Coughlin constantly emphasizes the Giants' tradition of physicality on the more hostile side of the ball, and that in training camp players are shown clips of old war horses the likes of Sam Huff and Andy Robustelli.

Of his disappointing 2011 unit, Fewell said, "They want to accomplish something big. They still have the opportunity for greatness, and so we just have to get them to believe that they can seize that opportunity when the moment arrives."

It's here, Sunday night in MetLife Stadium. Tuck will tee it up again. "And as Tuck goes," Fewell said, "we go a lot of times."

Umenyiora will almost certainly join him, and there's no question about the young and restless JPP, whom Osi said is playing at "as high a level as I've seen a defensive end play in a long time."

So the Giants of 2011 have one last shot to be the Giants of 2007, or the Giants of LT. It's not about protecting Manning or saving Coughlin.

It's about chasing the other guy's quarterback, you know, like a bunch of crazed dogs.

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 from 9 to 11 a.m. ET on ESPN New York 1050.