Reserve linebacker Brian Kehl played like a No.1 in Giants 29-17 
win over 49ers. (Bill Moore photo) (40295)

After losing decisively on the road to the Cleveland Browns by 35-14 last week, the Giants returned home to the Meadowlands on Sunday with a renewed focus and did what Super Bowl champions and contenders are supposed to do: impose their will on a lesser team. While it was not an aweinspiring performance, the Giants’ 29-17 victory over the 2-5 San Franciso 49ers put them at 5-1, the best record in the NFC, and set the stage for a match-up with the Steelers at Heinze Field in Pittsburgh this Sunday (4:15 p.m.). The Steelers are also 5-1,and along with the Giants, one of the NFL’s preeminent franchises.

The highly anticipated encounter in Pittsburgh will mark the beginning of a significant four-week stretch in the Giants’ schedule. With 10 games remaining, all of their opponents are currently solidly in the playoff hunt. After meeting the Steelers, their next four games will have them facing the Dallas Cowboys at home, the Philadelphia Eagles on the road, the Baltimore Ravens in New Jersey and the NFC West Division-leading Cardinals in Arizona. Their deep pool of talent will have to continue to play well if the Giants are to maintain their first-place hold on the NFC East, as injuries could be a considerable factor. Hosting the 49ers with a depleted linebacker corps, the reserves ably answered the call. With middle linebacker Antonio Pierce, the Giants’ defensive team leader, sidelined with a quad injury, and starting outside linebacker Gerris Wilkinson out with a sore knee, Chase Blackburn was inserted into Pierce’s spot and Bryan Kehl assumed Wilkinson’s place in the starting lineup.

The 25-year-old Blackburn, a fourth-year pro from Akron, was expectedly steady anchoring the center of the field. But it was the rookie Brian Kehl, drafted by the Giants in the fourth round from Brigham Young university, who made an indelible impression on his teammates and coaching staff. “I think both of those kids played well,” said Giants head coach Tom Coughlin. “They had to play well.” Kehl, who was born and raised in Salt Lake City, Utah, said, “It was a lot of fun. There was a part of me that wanted to get nervous, but I told myself it wasn’t different from any other week,” he shared of his first start as a pro. “Each week I get more and more comfortable reading [opposing offenses].” “I was really impressed with him, but I wasn’t surprised at all,” said defensive end Mathias Kiwanuka of the 6-foot-3-inch, 245-pound Kehl. “He’s strong, physical and smart. And he also studies as hard as anyone on this team.” While Blackburn and Kehl aced their test against the 49ers,the Steelers are in a different class. The status of Pierce and Wilkinson for Sunday is uncertain. But even if they do play, it is unlikely that they will be fully recovered. Which means Blackburn and Kehl will be under a microscope even more intensely.