Defensive line key to Giants' success

Every time the New York Giants' defensive line ended its meetings this season, Michael Strahan said the same thing. Over and over.

``As the defensive line goes, so goes the defense,'' the three-time Pro Bowl defensive end said Wednesday.

That thought was never more appropriate as the Giants (13-4) began preparations for the NFC championship game Sunday against the Minnesota Vikings (12-5).

The Vikings aren't your ordinary offense.

Not only is Minnesota loaded at the skill positions with quarterback Daunte Culpepper, halfback Robert Smith and wideouts Randy Moss and Cris Carter, it has an outstanding offensive line that features Pro Bowl tackles Korey Stringer and Todd Steussie.

``You just can't shut down one aspect of their game,'' Strahan said. ``You shut down the run and they have the most dangerous receivers in the game. You shut down the pass and they have one of the most dangerous running games in the league. It's a double-edge sword. You don't know which side to grab.''

The problem is just as great for the Vikings in dealing with New York's defensive line.

Strahan, who had his streak of three straight Pro Bowls snapped this season, has played his best ball of the season since Jim Fassel guaranteed New York would make the playoffs for the first time since 1997. Strahan had 9.5 sacks in the regular season and two more in the playoff win over Philadelphia last week.

Tackle Keith Hamilton is having his best season (10 sacks) since getting 11.5 in 1993, while tackle Christian Peter and end Cedric Jones have been solid, particularly against the run, where New York was second best in the league.

``There is no secret that it all starts with our defensive line,'' Hamilton said. ``We have to play well to have a chance to win, any game.''

This game might be their biggest challenge.

The right side of the Vikings' line is mammoth. Stringer, who will go head to head with Strahan, is listed at 346 pounds and guard David Dixon is 358.

Steussie, center Matt Birk and left guard Corbin Lacina are small compared to them, ranging between 305 to 316 pounds.

``They have big guys, but that's football,'' said Giants rookie tackle Cornelius Griffin, who has been getting increased playing time. ``You always have people who are bigger and stronger and better, but you still play. You never know what is going to happen.''

The defensive line has allowed an average of 72.3 yards rushing. That's put the opposition in more passing situations and let the linemen and linebackers go after the quarterback.

Doing that against the Vikings might not be so easy. In last week's 34-16 win over New Orleans, Minnesota's line did not allow a sack against a team that led the NFL with 66. Culpepper was barely touched in passing for 302 yards and three touchdowns.

``We knew they're good,'' Hamilton said. ``One of the first things coach pointed out early in the meeting today was that they didn't give up any sacks last week.''

On the comforting side, the defensive line has been outstanding during the team's six-game winning streak. No opponent has either rushed for more than 88 yards or had more than 327 total yards.

In last week's 20-10 win over the Eagles, the line limited Donovan McNabb to 17 yards rushing while sacking him six times. Philadelphia gained 186 total yards.

Fassel said the Vikings are going to see a number of defensive schemes on Sunday.

``The blitz has got to be part of the package, because you can't let Culpepper just stand back there,'' Fassel said. ``In a perfect world you'd use a four-man rush all the time, but not with their offensive line. Against those guys you have to change up, mix it up. You can't give them a steady diet of anything.''