Fill Plax's shoes? No sweat for Smith

Back when the New York Giants lost Plaxico Burress (to not-so-free agency) and parted with Amani Toomer, the franchise's all-time leading receiver, the skeptics were concerned. OK, hysteria is not too strong a word. Who, they worried, would step up at wide receiver?

It seemed to be the one thing preventing the Giants from being a Super Bowl contender. Was there a legitimate No. 1 among the candidates? Steve Smith? Mario Manningham? Domenik Hixon? First-round draft choice Hakeem Nicks from North Carolina?

Naturally, the receivers heard all of this.

"Of course," Smith said last week, chuckling into the phone at Giants Stadium. "When we heard that, we laughed because we knew the challenge that we all had and the ability we had."

It's too early to call it a last laugh, but a clear No. 1 has emerged from the pack. Smith leads the NFL in receptions (37) and receiving yards (481), ahead of, among others, Dallas Clark, Hines Ward, Reggie Wayne and Randy Moss.

There are only five unbeaten teams left and two of them -- the 5-0 Giants and the 4-0 New Orleans Saints -- collide on Sunday. The team that best controls the airspace under the roof of the Louisiana Superdome likely will stay that way.

"Not all of the plays are meant to go to him," Giants quarterback Eli Manning said two weeks ago, after Smith caught 11 passes for 134 yards and two touchdowns in Kansas City.

Perhaps not, but through five games it's clear that Eli eyes Smith the way brother Peyton Manning prizes Indianapolis Colts teammate Wayne. According to ESPN Stats & Information, through five games this season, Smith and Wayne are tied for third in most times targeted for passes (48). Only Houston's Andre Johnson (50), Seattle's Nate Burleson (49) and New England's Moss (49) have been targeted more often.

"He's always open, always catches the ball and he scores touchdowns," said ESPN analyst Trent Dilfer, who played quarterback for 14 seasons in the NFL. "I'm confused. I no longer know what a No. 1 receiver is. I say that sarcastically.

"I mean, if that's not a No. 1, what is? The guy has been better than Plaxico Burress."

Manning, who even had his doubters after winning Super Bowl XLII, has been better than ever. Before, with big targets like Burress and former Giants tight end Jeremy Shockey, Manning had more margin for error. With a corps of less-experienced, smaller receivers, Manning has had to be more accurate. He's the No. 2-rated passer in the league, after his brother Peyton. Moreover, he leads all passers in the push-comes-to-shove categories of the fourth quarter (147.5 rating) and on third down (151.7).

Smith leads the league with 15 catches on third down, three more than anyone else.

"He usually manages to find me," Smith said. "That's Eli trusting me and all the receivers. You just know if you get open, he'll find you."

Actually, when it comes to Smith, Manning is throwing it before Smith gets open.

"There's an obvious synergy between him and Eli," Dilfer said. "You can see it when Eli let's it rip -- way before he's open. He trusts him that much."

While the wide receiver position seems to attract more than its share of preening, self-promoting athletes, Smith is the anti-diva. For starters, he actually blocks. He answers interview questions with one or two sentences and is, outwardly at least, exceedingly humble. Maybe it's because, until now, he's never really been the leading man.

Think about it: He's not even the NFL's most famous wide receiver named Steve Smith. That would be the Carolina Panthers' wideout, who this season has 20 catches for 255 yards and zero touchdowns.

As a freshman at USC, the Giants' Smith played behind Mike Williams, who became a first-round draft choice. From 2004 to '06, Dwayne Jarrett caught more passes for more yards and many more touchdowns, but his career numbers with the Panthers amounted to only 18 catches for 211 yards.

Smith, 5-foot-11 and 195 pounds, caught three touchdown passes from Matt Leinart in USC's national championship-clinching victory over Oklahoma in the Orange Bowl in January 2005. Still, he slid to the second round of the 2007 draft, where the Giants selected him with the No. 51 overall pick.

"His combine number didn't blow you away," said Matt Williamson of ESPN's Scouts Inc. "He ran a 4.4 [in the 40] -- if he ran a 4.3, he'd be among the elite. But he is a great route runner and has great body control. He's best out of the slot, when he's matched up against a safety or a No. 3 cornerback."

Smith was dogged by shoulder and hamstring injuries as a rookie, but caught five passes in the Giants' Super Bowl victory, four of them on third down. Last season he very quietly caught more passes (57) than Burress or Toomer, but no one saw this season coming.

Now scouts are comparing him to New England's Wes Welker, who led the league with 223 catches combined in the past two years.

As long as the Giants' running game continues to flourish (the Saints have a stout run defense), Manning and his receivers should get the matchups they like, with Smith running intermediate routes and Manningham (20 catches, 342 yards, three touchdowns) stretching the field vertically.

When Burress shot himself in the thigh last fall in a Manhattan nightclub, the Giants' depth chart at wide receiver seemed destined to change dramatically. Last month, the athlete who caught the winning touchdown pass in Super Bowl XLII was sentenced to two years in prison for criminal possession of a weapon.

As it turns out, in one of those quirky, ironic turns, Smith's biggest opportunity might have been born directly from one of the most frightening moments of his life.

On Nov. 25, 2008, Smith had just arrived at home in Clifton, N.J., when a man put a gun to his head. Smith relinquished his money, jewelry and cell phone and reported the robbery to police. Three days later, Burress carried an unlicensed Glock 40 handgun into the Latin Quarter nightclub.

If Smith hadn't been robbed, and Burress hadn't heard about the details, Giants players said later, Burress wouldn't have broken the law.

"Plaxico said that himself," Smith told ESPN.com. "He was just trying to protect himself. He just didn't go about it in the right way."

Smith's ascension to No. 1 wide receiver would not have happened. Funny and kind of weird in retrospect, isn't it?

"Yeah," said Smith, the man of few words, "it is."

Greg Garber is a senior writer for ESPN.com.