Pierce making sure Giants focus on what really matters

PHOENIX -- New York Giants middle linebacker Antonio Pierce ducked and dodged the question like a polished politician Monday night.

He had been asked, rather simply, if he really was responsible for several teammates' wearing monotone black suits on their flight to Phoenix for Super Bowl XLII, and he wouldn't take credit.

"You have to wear a suit anyway, so we all decided it would be great for team unity," Pierce said, adding that at least 38 players on the Giants' 53-man roster followed through on the idea. "We had a couple of guys who didn't get the memo, but these things happen."

It's actually not surprising that Pierce wasn't eager to rush into the spotlight on this occasion. Sure, he's an outspoken leader on the Giants' defense, a brash seventh-year veteran with a flair for the well-timed quote. But he's also not overly concerned with how much recognition is coming his way. He'd rather keep his teammates focused on winning a championship and his defense sturdy enough to make that goal happen.

This, by the way, is what makes Pierce so important to the Giants' defense. It's also why his teammates are happy that he'll be the man making the defensive calls when they face the high-powered New England Patriots offense Sunday.

"Antonio has all the intangibles you want in a leader," Giants defensive end Michael Strahan said. "I might be the guy who's making the locker room speeches and yelling on the sidelines, but he's the one who people really listen to when he speaks. He has a calming effect on this defense when he's on the field. I always feel more comfortable knowing he's out there."

That impact has plenty to do with the expectations that Pierce has to live up to every time he takes the field. When he signed a free-agent deal with the Giants in 2005 -- he spent the first four years of his career in Washington after entering the league as an undrafted free agent -- he knew all about the Giants' heritage at linebacker. The dominance of Sam Huff. The versatility of Carl Banks. Heck, he walked past shrines to Hall of Famers Harry Carson and Lawrence Taylor every time he entered the Giants' locker room.

So far, Pierce has given those former New York stars plenty of reasons to believe he's continuing their proud tradition. Pierce led the Giants in tackles this season (103) and he had 137 stops in 2006. When he missed three games in 2005, teammates say, the Giants' defense suffered so much that opposing runners had no problems finding wide-open running lanes. And though Pierce isn't perfect -- he created a controversy when he blared a bullhorn during an interview session following the Giants' 0-2 start this season -- he did help revitalize a defense that has allowed more than 20 points to just two opponents since that time.

Pierce takes great pride in those numbers, along with the relationships he's built with former Giants greats. He talks with Carson every week and has had several conversations with other former New York linebackers, including his good friend and former Redskins teammate Jessie Armstead.

"I've had a chance to meet guys like Carson, Brad Van Pelt and a whole bunch of other guys who are always on the sidelines for games," Pierce said. "When I came here, I knew what it was going to be like. I wear Carl Banks' old number [58]. You can't wear a number like that on this team unless you expect to do great things."

The Giants all believe Pierce filled an important void on their defense when he arrived three seasons ago. When Armstead left the team following the 2001 season, the Giants lost one of their most respected leaders on defense. Then linebacker Mike Barrow signed with Washington in 2004, and another strong voice had vanished from the defense that led New York to Super Bowl XXXV.

Now that the Giants are playing for the title again, Pierce is stressing the same sense of urgency among his teammates that those other players emphasized seven years ago.

What he also understands is that the Giants' defensive success will hinge largely on the moves he makes as the quarterback of the defense.

"[New England quarterback] Tom Brady is very poised when he leaves the huddle and comes to the line of scrimmage," Pierce said. "He doesn't show you a lot, so it's my job to make sure the defense gets into the right positions. It's like a chess game out there."

It's also a chess game the Giants didn't handle well in the second half of their first meeting with New England. What irritates Pierce the most about the 38-35 loss to the Patriots on Dec. 29 is the 12-point lead the Giants blew. New York had a perfect opportunity to ruin New England's hopes for an undefeated season. Instead, the Giants let that moment slip away as Brady and Randy Moss proved why the Patriots are so tough to beat in the first place.

This time around, Pierce is seeking a much different outcome. As he said, "We're not trying to be a feel-good story here. We're trying to take the [Lombardi Trophy] back to New York with us."

Right now, it's hard to know whether the Giants really are good enough to pull one of the biggest upsets in Super Bowl history. What is clear, however, is that Pierce will be a major factor in any success they have on Sunday.

Jeffri Chadiha covers the NFL for ESPN.com.