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Champs have underdog mentality

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ALBANY, N.Y. – The Giants won the last game of the 2011 NFL season. So should they be considered the league's finest team as they begin their 2012 training camp?

"Until you lose, you've got to be called the best, right?" linebacker Mathias Kiwanuka said today. "I mean, it's a new year, it's a new season, but we have the crown and we've got that target on our back and we know it.  That's why we're going to look at it that way.  Not to put ourselves above anybody, but just to remember that when we play a team, we're going to get their best game, we're going to get their best shot."

It's a role the Giants are still not completely accustomed to. This is a team that has long seemed more comfortable as underdogs, a group that performs at its best when everyone outside their tight inner circle doesn't expect them to.

For evidence, we cite last season. When the lockout ended, the Giants were on nobody's short list to win the NFC East, much less the Super Bowl. As they have in the past, the Giants claimed to be unconcerned about such slights while simultaneously using them for motivation. It took a while for them to gain traction, but when they did there was no stopping the Giants. They won their last six games, including a victory over New England in Super Bowl XLVI for their second championship in five seasons.

Today, 172 days after hoisting the Lombardi Trophy, the Giants opened training camp at the University at Albany. And though in their hearts they believe they can again be atop the league when the long season ends, the Giants know the football media and public are populated with skeptics. Because of that, the defending champions will take the field tomorrow for their first practice with an underdog mentality.

"I think we still have that," record-setting wide receiver Victor Cruz said. "Coming into this season nobody is picking us to win, everybody is picking us to be last in the division, and things of that nature.  Surely that puts a chip on our shoulder.  We want to come out and prove people wrong, like we essentially have to do every year.  That chip is definitely still there, and we're going to be working hard to knock that chip off our shoulder at the end of the year."

The Giants can probably get all the incentive they need just by glancing at the 2011 regular season standings. Yes, they won the NFC East. But they did so with a 9-7 record, the first time since the 1970 merger the division champion had fewer than 10 victories. The Giants soon became the first team to win the Super Bowl after a seven-loss regular season.

They begin camp not with the mindset of a team that earned gaudy championship rings, but one that was just a game over .500.

"We know we've got to improve," said two-time Super Bowl MVP Eli Manning. "We were 9-7 last year in the regular season. That's not good enough. We were a better team than that. Obviously, we showed that throughout the playoffs. We've got to have that urgency, that consistency throughout the whole season and play our best football for the 16 regular season games. That's what we're going to work on and just keep grinding, staying hungry to get better and to make sure we can have another successful year this year."

"You gotta be humble and remember the reason why we turned around a team that was 9-7 to a Super Bowl team," defensive end Justin Tuck said. "Eli is right on. It's going to be another tough year for us. We know what our schedule looks like. So it's important for us to work as if we didn't make the playoffs. Work as if we didn't win the Super Bowl because all that's going to be needed to get back to where we want to be this year."

Tuck is the team's defensive captain and an eight-year veteran, so he will be able to determine immediately if the Giants have the proper attitude on the practice field this week.

"(I want to see) how we respond to everybody patting us on our backs all offseason," Tuck said. "I'm curious to see if we come in hungry like I think we will be. I'm curious to see where our mind is. I know guys have been training. I know guys are physically ready. But it's a different grind when you're on top of the mountain. But we're always the hunters. I don't agree with that. But in the public eye we're not the hunters, we're being hunted this year. It's a different mindset when you're in that situation."

"It's not just another walk in the park for us," Cruz said. "It's a new season; it's a new energy that we have to come in with.  Last year is over, we won the Super Bowl, but last year is over and we want to come out with a renewed sense of energy and a renewed sense of intelligence, and go out there and play football."

Manning is the player who sets the tone for the Giants. And his obsession with improvement – both personal and for the team – will help fuel the players in camp and throughout the season.

"I think it's having something to prove - not being satisfied with how last year ended up," Manning said. "But instead, saying we can be better, we can be that good. This past year we showed our potential those last six games of the season, the two regular season and the four playoff games, that we can play with anybody and we can compete and we can play great football. It's a matter of getting to that point, finding that style of football. That the way to be successful and then holding on to it for the season. Obviously, you always want to be playing your best football at the end of the year. That's always the goal. But we've got to find a way to be playing better football throughout the whole season."

It starts now.

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