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Jason Pierre-Paul racking up accolades with biggest game on the horizon

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EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. — Jason Pierre-Paul is no longer the freakish athlete with the big upside.

The second-year defensive end's days of impressing his New York Giants teammates with his athleticism are over.

What stands out for the rest of the Giants these days more than his one-handed catches in practice while laterally jumping over rectangular foam obstacles is what Pierre-Paul, 23, is doing on the field.

Not only is he the best player on the Giants' defense, he is now among the best in the NFL.

Doubt it? How's this for a list of honors: Pro Bowl. All-Pro. Two NFC defensive player of the week awards. Conference player of the month in December.

Not enough? How about his game-saving block of Dan Bailey's 47-yard field goal attempt in the most important game of the season at Dallas in early December when the postseason was on the line? Then there's his 16 1/2 sacks the fourth-highest total in Giants history - to go with 23 tackles for losses and 29 quarterback hits.

Ouch!

So if you are wondering who will make a game-changing play in the Super Bowl against the New England Patriots, find No. 90 in the white uniform next weekend in Indianapolis because chances are he'll be the one making the play.

"He's a thoroughbred," said two-time Pro Bowl defensive end Osi Umenyiora, who lost his starting job to Pierre-Paul through a combination of injuries and just better play. "His motor, man, just never stops."

Pierre-Paul has created his own little highlight film in helping the Giants (12-7) get to the Super Bowl for a second matchup with the Patriots (15-3) in four years.

Besides his field goal block against the Cowboys, people tend to forget that Pierre-Paul also had eight tackles and two sacks, including one for a safety, in the game that allowed New York to end a four-game losing streak and get back in the playoff hunt.

The other play his coaches rave about came in a 49-24 loss to the New Orleans Saints. It turned out to be inconseqential, but it was such a good play. The Saints faked a field goal attempt on the opening drive, and Pierre-Paul came from one side of the field to the other to stop Jimmy Graham a yard shy of a first down.

His coaches insist no other linemen in the league could have made the play.

"I'm still learning," said Pierre-Paul. "I'm taking steps. I have a ways to go."

That's scary because Pierre-Paul dominated this season, particularly early on when the opposition had yet to realize his impact and send double-teams his way.

That's changed now, and he has still excelled.

His 16 1/2 sacks were the most by a Giant since Michael Strahan had 18 1/2 in 2003. His 29 quarterback hits were 19 more than any other teammate and his 23 tackles for losses were 10 more than linebacker-defensive end Mathias Kiwanuka, who was second in that category for New York.

"First off, he's an athlete," Kiwanuka said. "He probably can do a number of things on the football field but at the position he is at, he definitely excels. His understanding of what our defense is asking him to do, and you combine that with the point in the season where people started focusing on him and he adjusted to all the double teams and shifts and all that kind of stuff. He's definitely a professional now."

After being taken with the 15th pick overall in the first round in 2010, Pierre-Paul had to learn how to play in the NFL.

"This year, I know all the calls and I'm not thinking as much," the former South Florida star said. "Last year, it was on and off, I was a little slow on that, so they allowed me to play slower. My pass rush is better, run defense is better. Everything is coming to mind quicker."

Copyright 2014 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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