EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. (AP) – Jeremy Shockey’s career appears to be settling into its triumphant third act.

In Act I, the free-spirited rookie from a small town in Oklahoma comes to the big city and unleashes his vast talents on the NFL, making the Pro Bowl and setting team records at his position.

Act II is the inevitable fall from grace as the team stumbles and the hero’s brashness begins to look more like self-aggrandizement. Several ill-timed – some would say vulgar and inflammatory – public comments only fan the flames.

Now comes Act III, in which the chastened hero minds his manners, is rededicated to his craft, and again becomes a star and even a team leader of sorts.

With five regular-season games remaining, the New York Giants tight end already has seven touchdown catches, one more than his career best. His 713 yards are second among NFL tight ends behind San Diego’s Antonio Gates (823), and his 14.9-yard average is the best in the league among tight ends with more than 18 receptions.

Not coincidentally, the Giants are 7-4 and tied for the first place in the NFC East with Dallas as they prepare for Sunday’s showdown with Dallas at Giants Stadium.

“This game’s hard, especially being in New York on the No. 1 stage in America,” Shockey says.

“People are going to criticize you no matter what; even if you get a win and you barely beat a team they’re going to still point out the negatives. People in this locker room understand that’s the baggage that comes with being a part of the New York Giants.

“But the good thing is when you start doing good, people probably give you a little more praise than in other cities.”

Worshipped as a rookie in 2002 when his 74 receptions set team marks for rookies and tight ends, Shockey has had a sometimes uneasy relationship with Giants fans, though the team’s 10-22 record in 2003 and 2004 undoubtedly fueled their discontent.

“All I can really control is what I do on the field, how I play on Sundays, and how I work during the week,” Shockey said a day after his 10-catch, 127-yard, one-touchdown performance in last Sunday’s overtime loss to the Seahawks. “I can’t really control what people think of me. They praise me now, but I guarantee if I start not doing well, they’re going to start bashing me.”

That may be a harsh assessment considering that, from almost any perspective in the Giants Stadium parking lot, Shockey’s No. 80 reigns supreme before home games, ahead of Eli Manning’s No. 10.

, Tiki Barber’s No. 21 and Michael Strahan’s No. 92.

And the jerseys won’t become obsolete – Shockey signed a five-year, $31.2 million contract extension in October.

Shockey’s increased numbers this season are the product of several factors.

They include better health – he has been plagued by nagging foot injuries.

They also include Manning’s growth as an NFL quarterback and the addition of wide receiver Plaxico Burress, signed as a free agent in the offseason. Burress leads the team with 60 receptions for 928 yards, and has opened up room in the secondary for Shockey.

“I think they are very much helping each other in the attention that teams have given them,” said Giants tight ends coach Mike Pope. “Both of them are pretty tall and good jumpers, so teams have to think about putting those 5-9 guys out there to cover them.”

He won’t come out and say he has learned from his public mistakes – such as throwing a cup of ice into the stands in San Francisco that inadvertently hit two children or calling Cowboys coach Bill Parcells a derogatory name in a magazine article.

But it’s clear the new Shockey has adopted an all-business, all-the-time attitude when it comes to football and is a respected part of the team. He and Barber were the two players invited to the deathbed of Wellington Mara, the team’s owner and the NFL’s patriarch, on the day before he died – and he was one of the straight-laced Mara’s favorite players.

The old Shockey occasionally resurfaces, too, as it did near the end of the Seattle game. He mugged for the sideline cameras as Jay Feely’s attempt at a game-winning field goal appeared to be sailing through the uprights, only to look on in disbelief when the kick missed.

“I’m always going to be looking in a positive direction,” Shockey said unapologetically. “If I look like a fool on national TV, so be it. I’m an emotional person, that’s how I am.”

Shockey is acutely aware that everything he says or does is subject to more scrutiny than if he played in a smaller market. He experienced that last spring when he caused a stir by choosing to work out in Miami in the offseason instead of taking part in the Giants’ voluntary workouts.

Head coach Tom Coughlin was displeased at the time, but even he can’t dispute the results: A year after a series of nagging injuries, Shockey has been healthy and is a major reason the Giants are contending for the playoffs for the first time since his rookie year.

“There is nothing that has surprised me, because I think I know the player and he’s practiced well and performed well in games,” Coughlin says. “He’s done a lot of good things and hopefully there are a lot more good things to come.”

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