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Giants DE Strahan returns to practice

EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. (Dec. 20, 2006) -- With the playoffs in doubt, Michael Strahan is back on the field for the New York Giants -- at least in practice.

The seven-time Pro Bowl defensive end practiced for the first time since spraining his right foot in a game against the Houston Texans on Nov. 5.

"Michael did everything and I thought he did all right," coach Tom Coughlin said after the practice. "He did not look tentative or cautious. He moved up and down the line in 9-on-7 with no problem. Now we'll see how he feels tomorrow."

While he wished everyone a Merry Christmas, Strahan refused to talk to the media about his prospects for playing Dec. 24 against the New Orleans Saints (9-5) in what is just about a must-win game for the Giants (7-7). Officially, Strahan is listed as questionable, meaning he has a 50-50 chance of playing.

New York is tied with Atlanta (7-7) for the second wild-card playoff berth, but even two victories might not guarantee a postseason berth for the Giants.

"That means a lot to this team to have a Michael Strahan back in the huddle," linebacker Brandon Short said. "He's the physical and emotional leader on the defense since I've been here, and long before I've been here. So to have a Hall of Famer back out on the field can't hurt."

Strahan participated in individual drills last week before the Giants lost to Philadelphia 36-22, but the 14-year veteran -- who is tied with Lawrence Taylor for the all-time team lead in sacks -- did not practice with the team.

Playing without Strahan has not been good for the Giants. Since Coughlin took over as coach in 2004, New York is 2-12 in the games he has missed, including 1-5 this season.

"I think it relates to two areas: one is his leadership and, obviously, two is his playing ability," Coughlin said.

"He's a guy who has his heart and his soul in what he's doing, and he is an individual so greatly respected that he can say and do and players will respond to what he says. They have that much respect for him.

"When that's missing, that's an element of stability, if you will, of outstanding play, of leadership that is not on the field."

Before Strahan was hurt, the Giants were the NFL's 14th-ranked defense, allowing an average of 308.1 yards. The unit is now ranked 20th, giving up an average of 386.5 yards in the games he missed.

"Players do respond around Michael and the quality of his play, and also his ability just to put it right on the money when a circumstance comes up that is one of the four or five plays of the game that have to be made," Coughlin said. "He has the rare ability to make sure everyone understands that."

William Joseph started at left end for Strahan against Chicago, Jacksonville and Tennessee before rookie Mathias Kiwanuka, who had been playing the right side, took over for the past three games. Kiwanuka made the move after Osi Umenyiora returned from a hip injury to his right end position.

With Strahan and Umenyiora playing together again, teams have to decide which one to double. Umenyiora has been getting most of the doubles in recent weeks.

"Strahan is a great player and he is obviously a guy you want to have a plan for in the pass rush and all that stuff," Saints quarterback Drew Brees said. "It's one of those things -- we'll have a plan for him to try to prevent him from making those big plays that he is used to making."

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