Saturday, February 2, 2008

CHANDLER, Ariz. — Seven years ago, Michael Strahan and Amani Toomer considered the New York Giants’ loss to the Baltimore Ravens in Super Bowl XXXV as a speed bump on their way to a championship.

They couldn’t have been blamed for thinking otherwise.

Entering the 2001 season, the Giants were set at key positions like quarterback (Kerry Collins), running back (Tiki Barber), tight end (Jeremy Shockey), the defensive line (Strahan and Cornelius Griffin) and led by coordinators Sean Payton and John Fox.

But injuries, a blown playoff lead at San Francisco, a coaching change to Tom Coughlin, a rebuilding effort with Eli Manning, a shutout home playoff loss to Carolina and general mediocrity have prevented Strahan and Toomer from returning to the sport’s ultimate stage until tomorrow night, when the underdog Giants play the New England Patriots in Super Bowl XLII.

Strahan and Toomer are the only two players left from the 2000 team and are two of only three players on the Giants with Super Bowl experience. Reserve offensive lineman Grey Ruegamer won a ring with the Patriots in 2001.

Both Giants lifers — who have appeared in a combined 408 games for the franchise — often thought their chance for reaching a second Super Bowl had disappeared.

“Every year when you get eliminated, there is a time where you think about whether you’ll ever get another shot,” Toomer said. “And then you watch the Super Bowl and you think, ‘Man, I could be there if we would have just done this, this and this.’ ”

The Giants are back in the big game because Strahan, 36 and Toomer, 33, still play at a high level.

Both players were limited last year because of injuries but bounced back this season.

Strahan had nine regular-season sacks and is second on the team with 19 playoff tackles. Toomer has three touchdown catches among 15 receptions in the postseason.

The players took different paths to the Giants.

Strahan was a military kid who graduated from high school in Germany and attended Division I-AA Texas Southern. He was a second-round pick in 1993.

Strahan became a starter in 1994 and missed only two games over the next 10 seasons, becoming a Pro Bowl regular and one of the league’s premier pass rushers (his 22½ sacks in 2001 are a single-season NFL record).

But he missed eight games in 2004 and seven games in 2006. Off the field, he went through an expensive divorce and upset the Giants when he held out of training camp this year.

Strahan, though, rebounded to play every game this season. His 141½ sacks rank fifth in league history and first in Giants history.

“He has great excitement and exuberance for any aspect of football,” coach Tom Coughlin said. “He’s a guy that enjoys the game, enjoys his teammates, enjoys practices. You couldn’t do what he’s done for as long as he has without having great love for the game and your teammates.”

Strahan has been a star during press conferences this week, a trait that will make him a no-brainer for the television networks when he retires. Which, if the Giants pull the upset, could that be it?

“If we win, that might be it, it might not be it,” Strahan said. “Another part would be greedy because anytime you win, you feel like you can duplicate that success the next time around. It would be a hard call to make. I’ve done everything personally that I feel like I can do — awards, honors, that sort of thing. The only thing I haven’t done is the ultimate thing.”

Toomer played at primetime high school (De La Salle in Concord, Calif.) and college (Michigan) programs and was a second-round pick in 1996.

Toomer didn’t become a starter until 1999 and he caught at least 63 passes and five touchdowns for a five-year span (2000-04) and caught a pass in 98 consecutive games, a streak that ended in 2005.

Last season ended prematurely for Toomer when he tore his ACL halfway through the year. He was on pace for another 60-catch season.

Toomer is the Giants’ all-time leader in catches (620), receiving yards (8,917) and touchdown receptions (50).

“I was really disappointed last year at the way the season ended, and I didn’t feel like I had a big part in it,” Toomer said. “I felt like I could have helped the team. I never really thought I wasn’t going to be back. I always knew I would have a chance to be back.”

Most of the Giants players have looked to Strahan and Toomer this week for guidance on how to handle the Super Bowl atmosphere. Strahan realizes New York will have to lean on something else.

“They’ve got 20 guys who have been in this situation before and understand all of the things about a Super Bowl,” he said. “We have only three. We’re going to have to rely on a few other things in order to get over that hump.”

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