It's only natural that after the Giants scored 52 points with help from a breakout (and record-setting) game on kickoff returns, the defense was a bit overlooked in Sunday's victory over the Saints.

Sure, they forced four turnovers, but they also gave up a lot of big plays and quick scores at a time when the Saints were almost able to climb back in the game.

If the Giants are going to be Super Bowl contenders, the defense can't afford to play a bit role. It needs to be the force that pushes the team toward February. They know it, too.

"The defense definitely has to be a part of it, and it starts up front," defensive tackle Chris Canty said Monday. "The defensive line, we set the tone, and that's one of the things that we haven't done consistently in setting the tone for our defense and ultimately for our football team . . . We understand that we carry that flag . . . and we have to pick it up."

Despite some strong efforts by the defense against the 49ers, Packers and Panthers, Canty said he believes the Giants have yet to fulfill their potential. And he's not alone.

"I'd say that's a 'no' still," Jason Pierre-Paul said when asked if the defense played great. "We had some busted plays. We still haven't played that great football game. We have room to improve, and that's what we're going to do."

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Said Canty, "It wasn't a signature performance."

A signature performance would be the one the Giants put on the Falcons in last season's NFC wild-card playoff game, a 24-2 virtual shutout. When the Giants play in Atlanta on Sunday, they'll be looking to put their John Hancock on the Falcons again.

Tom Coughlin said he was pleased to hear that the defensive players are not satisfied.

"We've certainly been tested, we've had our backs to the wall, we've had to come through in certain circumstances in order to have a chance to win," he said. "I think we've had some good performances. I like what I hear if you're telling me the defensive players don't think they've accomplished what they've set out to and they think their best games are in front of them. I would encourage that."

In their 52-27 victory over the Saints, the Giants gave up 487 yards, the most since the Saints hung 577 on them last year in New Orleans. Drew Brees passed for 354 yards, the second-most allowed by the Giants this season. The 27 points allowed were the most in a Giants victory since they beat the Cowboys, 34-31, a year ago Tuesday.

But the Giants also held the Saints to two offensive TDs and thwarted two early red-zone drives. Said Coughlin, "We did the things we had to do when we had to do them."

For the Giants to keep winning, they'll have to do more. Some players came away from the win saying the defense had taken on a "bend-but-don't- break" personality.

"While we've given up quite a few yards, we've had opportunities to get the ball back to our offense in a number of different ways," Canty said. "That's the most important thing."

"Bend but don't break'' is not exactly a recipe to make a strong push toward the playoffs. At least it hasn't been in recent Giants championship runs, almost all of them spearheaded by the defense. Can they survive a case of the bends as the season gets more intense?

"Hopefully," Coughlin said, "we're better than that."