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Giants and Jets NFL surprises of 2004

EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. (AP) - Lost in the excitement of the latest renewal of the Yankees-Red Sox rivalry and the exploits of A-Rod, Jeter and Mariano is the other story quietly gaining momentum in the New York area.

It's the unexpected rise of the Jets and Giants, who together are providing two of the NFL's biggest surprises this season.

Also-rans a year ago with a combined 10 wins, the teams are off to great starts.

The Giants (4-1) are riding a four-game winning streak heading into a bye week under new, no-nonsense coach Tom Coughlin. Their only loss was to Philadelphia (4-0).

If Herm Edwards' Jets (4-0) beat San Francisco on Sunday at Giants Stadium, it will be a franchise-record best start.

"The thing you find out in this league is that one year doesn't determine what is going to happen the next year," said Giants quarterback Kurt Warner, the two-time MVP who has added another surprise with a career-reviving season.

While no one on either team is seriously considering an All-New York Super Bowl just yet, Giants running back Tiki Barber, who leads the NFL in rushing, let his mind wander for a split second.

"They'll have to move it here," Barber said of airlifting the title game from Jacksonville, Fla., to the Meadowlands in New Jersey.

"Most people in Florida are from New York and New Jersey anyway," Giants center Shaun O'Hara quipped.

Jokes aside, the early success of the Jets and Giants has common threads.

Both made significant player and coaching changes in the offseason. They also have stayed relatively healthy in a year where many contenders have been hurt by injuries. Somewhat easy schedules haven't hurt, either. The New York teams have won against opponents with a combined 10-27 record.

Coughlin has to get credit for the Giants' success. He restored order to a team that went 4-12 in 2003 by instituting a detail-oriented doctrine that demands accountability on and off the field. Mess up and your wallet is lighter.

Although that approach alienated many veterans, including Pro Bowl defensive end Michael Strahan, the positives are obvious. Mistakes are down and the players are showing a hunger again.

Tim Lewis' defense, which is confusing opposing offenses by mixing 4-3 and 3-4 formations, leads the league with a plus-11 turnover differential. Warner and the offense are showing flashes of the explosiveness that made the Giants a threat late in the 2002 season.

"We had 13 starters missing last season," Giants receiver Amani Toomer said. "You look at every team in the league, if everything goes right and everyone plays well, you're going to win games."

Even in games in which they haven't played well, the Giants have found a way to win, or gotten lucky, such as when Brett Favre missed most of the second half with a concussion in a 14-7 win at Green Bay.

The injuries also haven't hurt as much this year. When veteran safety Shaun Williams was lost with a knee injury, rookie Gibril Wilson stepped in and played well.

"This is a great start," safety Brent Alexander said. "It doesn't determine where you finish, but it's a step in the right direction to get to where we want to go."

At this time last year, the Jets were off to an 0-4 start, and they finished 6-10.

The Giants had something to do with that. The Jets lost Chad Pennington for the first six games of the season when the quarterback broke a wrist in a preseason game against them.

During the offseason, the Jets upgraded their linebackers, signed another quality receiver in Justin McCareins and hired an aggressive new defensive coordinator in Donnie Henderson. All have contributed to 4-0, along with a healthy Pennington and re-energized Curtis Martin, who is off to the best start of his 10-year career with 502 yards and four touchdowns.

Now with another win, the Jets would accomplish something that even Joe Namath failed to provide in the glory days.

"Yeah it would be great, but it doesn't put a ring on our finger," said receiver Wayne Chrebet, who was with the Jets' the only other time they started 4-0, in 2000. "To me, it is not all that exciting. Double digits and 0 - then I will be excited."

But players are happy for fans in New York, who get to watch two winning teams after sitting through the misery of last season. Defensive end John Abraham is not surprised both teams are doing so well.

"After having a bad year, you want to come back and try to do something good," said Abraham, who leads the AFC with six sacks. "I think it's good for the city of New York. Everybody keeps saying it might be the Giants and the Jets in the Super Bowl. That might be a better thing."

Though the Jets have had an easy schedule so far, beating teams that are a combined 4-14, Edwards makes no apologies.

"Whether people like it or not, we're not giving any of them back," he said. "As far as I'm concerned, we're going to keep them, all right? They wouldn't let me give any of them back when we were 0-4, so I'm not giving any of them back when we're 4-0."

Before booking any flights to Florida, a history lesson wouldn't hurt. The last time both New York teams started quickly was 2000. The Giants won three of their first four en route to a 12-4 record that led to a Super Bowl appearance against eventual champion Baltimore.

The Jets won their first four and then went south. They finished 9-7 and missed the playoffs.

New York and New Jersey fans can dream, though.

"It's the subway series of football, something you would never think could happen," said Giants receiver David Tyree, a New Jersey native. "It would be special. It's a long way off, but Jets-Giants could be like the Yankees-Red Sox. It could be vicious."


New York sports writer Andrea Adelson contributed to this report.

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