BY RALPH VACCHIANO
DAILY NEWS SPORTS WRITER
Monday, October 15th 2007, 4:00 AM
ATLANTA - It was only three weeks ago that the Giants were a mess, on their way to what surely would be a disastrous season. The last thing they needed back then was a national platform to show the country what a nightmare they had become.
Yet tonight they will take the stage on Monday Night Football with a chance to show everyone that reports of their demise were incredibly premature. Left for dead after losing their first two games, the Giants are now 3-2, just hitting their stride, and still giving chase in the NFC East. Their turnaround has been as complete as it was stunning.
It also turned out to be a fairly simple thing to do.
"Coach Coughlin made a great statement when we were 0-2 and had given up 80 points in two games," Michael Strahan said last week. "He said, ‘When you're tired of losing, you win.'"
That's the best explanation anyone has given for what has happened to the Giants over the last three weeks of the season, heading into tonight's game at the Georgia Dome against the troubled Atlanta Falcons (1-4). They have rediscovered their defense and gotten just enough offense to mount two second-half comebacks. And their confidence is obviously sky high.
Yet they also seem to be just as desperate as they were three weeks ago when they traveled to Washington looking for their first win of the season. They have gotten the wins and revived their season, but they feel their bandwagon is still empty. They're still looking for the respect they feel they deserve.
"We are just a hungry team," said defensive end Osi Umenyiora. "We still feel like we have a lot of things to prove. We still feel like a lot of people are doubting us so we are just hungry for more wins."
On the surface, the Falcons would seem to be a perfect opponent for a team ready to show how good it has become. The Giants' pass rush, which registered a 12-sack game two weeks ago, is pumped up over the fact that the Falcons will be forced to start two backup tackles - rookie Renardo Foster on the left and Tyson Clabo on the right.
Last year in Atlanta, the Giants recorded seven sacks and that was with the Falcons' starting tackles in the game and against the elusive Michael Vick. Now that Vick is out for the season, awaiting sentencing on federal dogfighting charges that have cast a pall over the Falcons, the less mobile Joey Harrington is the Giants' target on what he might find to be a very long night.
Of course, history is not really on the Giants' side. Aside from the fact that they have a history of losing to Atlanta's backup quarterbacks (remember Doug Johnson and Kurt Kittner?), they also have a history of failing when the expectations are high. They rallied nicely when their season was on the brink, but do they have the ability to actually handle a little success?
"Well certainly I do (think so)," Tom Coughlin said. "I continue to say this but we do have some really good leadership in the locker room and I count on that."
"We are not overlooking anybody," quarterback Eli Manning said. "If you look at them on film, you see right away they're a good team. They have good players and a good scheme and they play good football. And every game they have played, they have been in it right up to the end."
That is true, and that's the biggest selling point Coughlin had this week when he told his team the Falcons, despite their record, were dangerous. Other than a blowout loss at Minnesota on opening day, they haven't lost by more than a touchdown all year long.
"They have physically been in every game," Coughlin said. "They have battled and that is what you have to point out. That is exactly what the circumstance is."
Meanwhile, the Giants' circumstance is this: They are in a nice battle with Dallas, are tied with Washington and stand a game ahead of dangerous Philadelphia in the NFC East. Plus, remember how they felt the first two weeks of the season and they don't want to go through that again.
"Everybody's enjoying winning," Strahan said. "And when you're winning, the last thing you want to do is go back to the feeling of losing."