Chemistry, status of key assistant pose questions for new champions

PHOENIX -- Even in the wake of a thrilling Super Bowl XLII, it's hard to project whether the New York Giants' 17-14 upset victory over the New England Patriots can translate into a repeat title-game trip.

The Giants have all the elements of a team that has a chance to repeat. Eli Manning won four straight games in this year's playoffs and has been a regular in the playoffs for three straight years. He has arrived. New York entered the season as the eighth-youngest team in football. Coach Tom Coughlin became more player-friendly when he established a players' council that helped him relay his message.

And finally, the Giants should not have to remake the roster.

Their only starters soon available for free agency are linebacker Kawika Mitchell and safety Gibril Wilson. The other players available for free agency are defensive tackle Russell Davis, punter
Jeff Feagles, defensive tackle William Joseph, long-snapper Ryan Kuehl, linebacker Reggie Torber, kicker Lawrence Tynes and halfback Derrick Ward.

The difficulty facing them is keeping the winning chemistry. This is a good group. Led by nonstop talking and joking Michael Strahan, the defensive line has a blast together. Its players are like relatives who enjoy each other's company, cracking jokes but getting the work done in practice. They might lose some of that chemistry if Strahan retires, a decision he hasn't made yet.

The wide receivers are great leaders. Plaxico Burress became Manning's most dependable ally down the stretch. Manning worked magic with fades or stop routes with Burress, even though the veteran receiver was playing with a severe ankle sprain and occasional swelling in the knee. What you have to wonder, though, is whether Burress' unselfish willingness to sacrifice career longevity to help the team this year might cost him in the future.
Wide receiver Amani Toomer was dependable, but he's getting older.

And who knows whether tight end Jeremy Shockey can bounce back from injury. He has been banged-up repeatedly.

The point here is the Giants should be a playoff contender for the next several years, but can they peak as well as they did this season? With their name on the Vince Lombardi Trophy, the Giants will have to play harder and work even more efficiently just to get another chance.

"What I'm so proud of is that this group of young men bonded so tightly together and became the true definition of team and exhibited that, basically, through the season," Coughlin said. "Even when we were down 0-2 early in the year, we knew we had a good football team."

The 0-2 start was a byproduct of going from a zone pass defense to the aggressive scheme of new coordinator Steve Spagnuolo. Defenders delighted in the man-to-man aggressive concepts. Cornerbacks got in the faces of receivers and had the skills to make it work. The defensive line was able to attack more. Spagnuolo worked in blitzes.

One of the reasons it eventually worked was the great balance of veterans and young players. Corey Webster or rookie Aaron Ross could go to veteran bump-and-run cornerbacks such as Sam Madison and R.W. McQuarters for advice. Who knows whether the veterans will be back next season, so the younger corners could be on their own soon.

Middle linebacker Antonio Pierce is a great leader of the defense, but he turns 30 in October. Although he should have a year or two at the top of his game, it might be hard for him to match the accomplishments of this season.

The offensive line is peaking with seven blockers who have been together for more than three years. There might be more upside to their play, but center Shaun O'Hara turns 31 next season and right tackle Kareem McKenzie and guard Rich Seubert turn 29. Technically, though, this line should be in its prime.

It would be a big blow to the team if Spagnuolo goes to the Washington Redskins as head coach, but the odds of that happening aren't great. Spagnuolo is expected to interview with the Redskins after the Giants' return from the Super Bowl and have a parade. Jim Fassel probably is going to get the job, but Spagnuolo does have a chance.

Pierce suggested Sunday night that Spagnuolo won't be leaving. If necessary, Pierce joked, the defense would make sure the coach wouldn't make it to Washington. Knowing the Redskins' management already has hired most of the coaching staff, Spagnuolo might wait until next year to get a head coaching job, but there is no question he is a short-timer in New York. Losing him would be a big blow to the Giants' aggressive defensive scheme.

The key to everything, though, is Manning. He's 27, and he has earned a Super Bowl ring by his fourth year. The fascinating part of the Manning-Coughlin story was how both were supposed to be run out of town this season. Fans tired of Coughlin's 6-2 starts and second-half fades. Critics questioned Manning's cool, unemotional style of leadership and wondered whether he would take the next step. He did.

On Monday, Coughlin told the story of the back-to-back tough games Manning had as a rookie against the Baltimore Ravens and Washington, two aggressive defenses that blitzed him.

"He was sitting in my office in his rookie year; he was frustrated, and he wasn't playing well," Coughlin said. "He kind of lost his poise a couple of times in that experience and just sat there in my office saying, 'Coach, I want to be good. I want to be the quarterback of the New York Giants. I want to lead the New York Giants to victory.'"

It was a rare show of emotion for Manning, but Coughlin appreciated it.

The reward for Coughlin's confidence came early in the 2007 season. In the opening loss at the Dallas Cowboys, Manning suffered a mild right shoulder separation. He missed a couple days of practice but continued to play.

"I knew it wasn't bad," Manning said. "I threw after I hurt it in the Dallas game. I said, 'Hey, just give me some days and let me do everything I can to get this thing well.' I didn't want to miss a game. I want to be out there if I could help the team."

For a couple of weeks, Manning had to adjust because of the injury.

"Yeah, it was sore for the next couple of weeks," Manning said. "During practice, any time we had a deep throw, I couldn't make the throw, I'd kind of say, 'Hey, I would have thrown it to the post, but I'd take the 5-yard checkdown.' Probably after three or four weeks, it felt fine. I was able to make all of the throws. I don't think it affected me as the season went on."

This was a special year for the Giants. Everything came together. Although it might be hard to repeat it, at least this team should have a chance to be around the playoffs for several more years. And, who knows, everything might come together the way it did in Super Bowl XLII.

John Clayton, a member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame writers' wing, is a senior writer for ESPN.com.