Glendale, Ariz. -- No one on the New York Giants will say the team's offense has improved after losing Tiki Barber and Jeremy Shockey.
Maybe that's because everyone is so used to those high-profile personalities doing all the talking.
Still, it seems more than a coincidence that quarterback Eli Manning has guided the Giants to the Super Bowl a season after their all-time leading rusher (Barber) retired and more than a month after their Pro Bowl tight end (Shockey) broke his leg.
Nicknamed "Easy," Manning had a rough initiation to the league because Barber and Shockey dominated the huddle, which seemed to overwhelm the fourth-year quarterback at times.
With neither of them within earshot, Manning has appeared to assert himself, especially during his impressive playoff run.
"Everybody is going to want to have their theories and talk about it," Manning said. "For me, I've played smart football and I think I've been put into good positions."
Barber, who is now a TV commentator, was never Manning's biggest supporter, which was evident when he publicly questioned the quarterback's leadership this season. Shockey was known to be obsessed with the number of passes thrown his way and let Manning hear about it.
There's a feeling among the Giants media and fans that Barber and Shockey put too much pressure on Manning and stifled his growth.
Asked if he had to adapt to his teammates, Manning said, "It doesn't happen overnight."
It seems Manning has become more comfortable with a younger supporting cast. Two rookies - running back Ahmad Bradshaw and tight end Kevin Boss - have filled the void left by those veterans late in the season.
Bradshaw, who dropped to the seventh round because of off-the-field issues, didn't carry the ball until 12 weeks into the season.
Once he did, he gave New York some explosion, something that starting running back Brandon Jacobs lacks. Bradshaw averaged 8.3 yards on 23 carries in the regular season and has led the Giants in rushing (163 yards) in the playoffs.
"I knew right away Ahmad was a good runner," offensive coordinator Kevin Gilbride said. "The thing was, could he learn the other aspects of the game to take advantage of his running skills? Could he learn protection? Could he learn the audible system? Will he be able to pick up the things that you're required to do besides just running the ball? It was just a matter of time."
Around the same time Bradshaw became part of the offense, Boss got his shot, too.
Boss, an athletic 6-foot-6, 253-pound fifth-round pick, first started in Week 12. He isn't as smooth a receiver as Shockey but he is more of a well-rounded tight end.
Boss, though, was taken aback when a reporter suggested he was an improvement over Shockey.
"I kind of think it's a little silly," said Boss, who had nine catches and two touchdowns in the regular season. "I don't even come close to considering myself as in his category. It was an unfortunate situation for our team to lose a great player like Jeremy. He has proven himself in this game. But I felt like I could step in and help the team."
Giants general manager Jerry Reese disagreed with the notion that Shockey's absence has allowed Manning to assume more of a leadership role.
"That is [the media] speculating," he said. "We like Jeremy and he is a tremendous player for us. We are sad that he is not playing in the game."
Without addressing Barber or Shockey specifically, Gilbride did point out the improved chemistry and accountability that has developed lately.
"The only thing I can say is that sometimes we haven't always helped [Manning] as much as he's helped everybody else," Gilbride said. "He always helps everybody else with protections. He helps get the receivers to do the right thing. I think what's happening now is not only is he playing better, but the guys around him are raising their level of performance. So that it has collectively turned into a situation where we're playing pretty well as a unit."