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Calm in a Giant storm

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EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. – Here's an intriguing question for New York Giants fans: If you had to pick between running back Tiki Barber and wide receiver Amani Toomer, which would you take?

If the poll had been done before this season, it's likely most would have chosen the franchise running back over the consistent possession receiver. But that's distilling the situation far too much and ignoring so many things that are really crucial not to just playing, but to leading.

On Sunday, as the Giants won their fifth in a row since an 0-2 start, it was Toomer who again played the quiet but crucial role. He started off the scoring in what was eventually a 33-15 victory over San Francisco with a touchdown that put him atop the Giants' all-time list for touchdown receptions with 49 – but that's more trivia than importance.

What Toomer does that's far more important, if somewhat immeasurable, is set the tone with a quietly positive vibe. There's not much talk. There's not much celebration. There's just work.

"We've got some of those guys on defense who can get everybody to calm down when stuff is falling apart," Giants linebacker Antonio Pierce said. "But on offense, Amani is really the guy who does that. When we lost him, that was a lot to deal with."

Sure, the Giants have benefited in facing teams with backup quarterbacks (Trent Dilfer and Joey Harrington) or with injury issues (the Philadelphia Eagles and New York Jets) over the past four weeks. But Toomer's presence still helps explain why the Giants, who now have reached 5-2 for the fourth straight year under coach Tom Coughlin, are a lot better off without Barber now than they were last year at 6-2 but suddenly without Toomer.

Last year, when Toomer tore the anterior cruciate ligament in his right knee, there was a ripple effect on the entire team.

It was one of several injuries that turned the fast start to an 8-8 finish. From a strategic standpoint, there was no one for quarterback Eli Manning to rely upon when top options Plaxico Burress and/or Jeremy Shockey were taken away – certainly not the way Manning relied upon Toomer when San Francisco threw its full attention at Shockey on Sunday. Left unattended, Toomer slipped into the back of the end zone, virtually unnoticed.

Just as important, when Toomer was gone last season, there was no one to do something a little more important: Tell Barber to pipe down.

"I did," Toomer said, referring to trying to mitigate the general chaos that took over the Giants in the second half last season. "But I know that when someone gets hurt, it's hard for that guy to be part of it. I knew I had to just work on myself to get ready for this season."

Not that Toomer would do it exactly that way, either. His style is more demure than disruptive. Disruption was Barber's calling card a year ago during the second half of the season. Even in retirement, Barber extended his pot-stirring into the offseason and into this season as a football analyst for NBC. Barber focused his anger at Tom Coughlin, blaming the coach for everything from Barber's retirement to global warming.

Not that Coughlin doesn't have his faults. Some of those were exposed in a recent book by former New York Giants general manager Ernie Accorsi. But the bigger picture is that when battling to overcome distractions, you can't become a distraction in the process.

Enter Toomer, whose quiet style is akin to bringing the lights down on stage to calm a raucous audience. Toomer is the kind of guy who soothes the frayed nerves found in tense place, like a huddle.

"The way he talks in the huddle, it gets everybody calmed down and focused," Shockey said. "He motivates me in the huddle … because he's a great player who's constantly in there every day with his lunch pail in his hand doing his job."

The Giants have plenty of star players to do the highlight stuff. From Burress to Shockey to Manning, this is a team that should continue to score no matter what the situation. Toomer simply makes everything more consistent.

That scoring punch combines quite nicely with New York's strong pass rush, which was again on display Sunday, as the Giants sacked San Francisco's Dilfer six times.

Among those six was one that also led to a forced fumble and 75-yard touchdown return all by defensive end Osi Umenyiora early in the third quarter. The 49ers were at the New York 15-yard line at the time, hoping to narrow a 19-7 deficit.

With Umenyiora, Michael Strahan, Mathias Kiwanuka and Justin Tuck, the Giants have a collection of pass rushers who can give teams fits; the 12 sacks the Giants had against Philadelphia are a prime example. The Giants also do a good job of highlighting that quartet by putting Kiwanuka and Tuck at defensive tackle in passing downs.

In short, the Giants have the kind of players who can create a lot of noise in a stadium with big-time plays. Beyond the sacks, the Giants had four turnovers overall Sunday, including an interception that Pierce nearly returned for a score in the second half.

"We just need to stay healthy," said Pierce, recounting how injuries to Toomer and others upended a great start last season.

But the Giants also need a sense of calm.

"I like this team in terms of their approach," Coughlin said. "We have talked about this stretch being a difficult stretch. … The players have had a good attitude about handling that and they have listened and there is a real good support on the part of these guys for one another. That is what we are striving for and have always been."

However, it's not something Coughlin can say he's always had.

While Coughlin has done much to smooth his rough edges by talking with players more and meeting with the press on an individual basis, he still is an uptight guy. If the Giants start to list again, Coughlin reverting to form is not out of the question.

At that time, the team will need some calming.

It will need Toomer.