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A gibbous moon glowed over the meadowlands sunday night, yet you couldn't see many starsmany Giants stars, that is. Despite their 20-10 divisional playoff win over the Philadelphia Eagles, big blue hardly turned in a stellar performance. Nursing a broken arm, all-purpose running back Tiki Barber didn't return any punts and gained only 48 total yards. QB and comeback player of the year candidate Kerry Collins threw for only 125 yards and couldn't lead the Giants to an offensive touchdown. Amani Toomer caught only two passes for 23 yards.
And though the stars shined somewhat brighter on the defensive side of the ballcornerback Jason Sehorn returned an acrobatic interception for a touchdown; linebackers Mike Barrow and Jessie Armstead netted 11 and nine total tackles, respectively; and defensive end Michael Strahan contributed two sacksthe game was typical of most of New York's regular-season wins. It was marked by small, yet significant, contributions made by lesser-known players. As head coach Jim Fassel said after the game, "That's what's gotten us to 13-4: guys you may not expect to stepping up and making big plays."
With their $56.4 million payroll, one of the lowest in the NFL, the Giants have often depended on second-tier players to help carry them during their surprising run to the NFC Championship Game (in which they'll play host to the Minnesota Vikings on Sunday at Giants Stadium). Here's a look at some of the smaller stars who shined brightly for Big Blue against Philadelphia and throughout the season:
Greg Comella, fullback
After playing primarily on special teams his first two seasons in the Meadowlands, the former Stanford Cardinal had 36 catches this year, four times his career output heading into 2000. He served as the ideal safety net for Collins, making drive-prolonging third-down catches while also assisting the Giants' revamped offensive line in creating holes for Barber and rookie back Ron Dayne.
"We count on him to do a lot," Collins admitted during the season. "He's got good hands and a good feel for the game."
Though he made only one catch against the Eagles Sunday, Comella once again made huge contributions as a blocker for Barber and Dayne. He delivered the key block on the Giants' four biggest running plays in the game, each of which resulted in a first down. Big Blue didn't run wild against the Eaglesthey gained 112 rushing yards after averaging 126 during the regular seasonbut they ran the ball well enough to keep the Eagles honest.
"My primary responsibility is to lead block," Comella said earlier in the season. True, but Fassel and offensive coordinator Sean Payton deserve credit for developing a pass-catching role for the previously seldom used player, who this season frequently lined up as the fullback in the I-formation or as a quasi H-back behind the tight end. He hadn't been used in a meaningful offensive role since his days at Stanford.
"The way Sean's system is set up, it gives the fullback an opportunity to get in the flat and make a catch," said Comella. "[Former Cardinal and 49er coach Bill] Walsh used to call the pass to the fullback 'an extended handoff.' His philosophy prepared me from what I do here." Given Minnesota's mediocre run defense (ranked 16th in the NFL), Comella may be relied on less for blocking this week, meaning that he could see a little more action as a receiver out of the backfield.
Ron Stone, offensive lineman
It's hard to say that as one of two Giants going to the Pro Bowl (Armstead is the other), Stone isn't a star. But consider the irony: He is the only member of the much-maligned 1999 line playing in the same position (second-year lineman Luke Petitgout was moved from left guard to right tackle) as a year ago. New York indulged in its biggest free-agent spending spree ever last summer in revamping the offensive linesigning center Dusty Zeigler, guard Glenn Parker, and tackle Lomas Brownand Stone was the one to make All-Pro.
On Sunday, he along with the rest of the offensive line held the Eagles to one sack, and he led the way on a 12-yard screen pass to Barber, a play that prolonged one of the Big Blue offense's two scoring drives (both field goals). Stone's excellence this season can be measured in the performance of the running backs. All they did was rush for a combined 2009 yards (the most of any Giant rushing attack since 1993).
"It's interesting that we bring all these guys in and [Stone] is the one that goes to the Pro Bowl," Giants GM Ernie Accorsi said Sunday. "But we've always felt he was our best offensive lineman. That's why we kept him. He's been terrific this year, and he's finally getting the recognition he deserves."
Emmanuel McDaniel, defensive back
McDaniel is another player who has benefited from the way he has been used by the Giants' coaching staffspecifically, defensive coordinator John Fox. A midseason waiver wire pickup in 1999, McDaniel seemed overwhelmed at times as an every-down player when he subbed for an injured Sehorn late last season. His teammates and coaches, however, have always believed in him (Sehorn even defended him in a tirade aimed at local beat writers during the preseason) and in 2000 he showed why, leading the team in interceptions with six as the nickelback in passing situations. He didn't make any picks against the Eagles Sunday, but he did share (with Armstead) in a critical third-quarter sack of Eagles' QB Donovan McNabb.