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Giants release middle linebacker Antonio Pierce

EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. (AP) — One of the worst defensive seasons in New York Giants history claimed another victim — middle linebacker Antonio Pierce.

The Giants on Thursday released the 31-year-old veteran who quarterbacked the defense for the past five years in a tenure that included four trips to the playoffs and a Super Bowl victory over the previously undefeated New England Patriots in February 2008.

Pierce's status with the team was put into question this season when he suffered a neck injury, forcing him to miss the final seven games of the season, a year in which the Giants surrendered 427 points.

Defensive coordinator Bill Sheridan and defensive line coach Mike Waufle were fired after the season and Pierce, who signed a $26 million contract as a free agent in 2005, was let go a month later.

Pierce also had one major off-the-field problem with the Giants. He drove a wounded Plaxico Burress to the hospital in November 2008 after the star receiver shot himself in a New York City nightclub and then took Burress' unlicensed gun back to New Jersey.

A grand jury opted not to indict him this past summer, but the incident, which led to Burress being sent to prison, was a burden for Pierce and the team for almost a year, even though Giants president John Mara openly defended Pierce.

For most of his time, Pierce was an outstanding football player for the Giants. He led the team in tackles three times, was a three-year captain, a Pro Bowler in 2006 and one of the inspirational leaders of the squad that did not have a losing season in his five years.

"When we brought him in here we were interested in A.P. for all of the dimensions he brought to the table his leadership qualities, his natural charismatic ability to rally the troops, he loved football, he's a very smart football player he took great pride in studying the tape and knowing what everybody did on defense," Coach Tom Coughlin said, adding Pierce "has worn that Giant uniform very, very proudly."

Pierce talked to Coughlin on Wednesday and met with general manager Jerry Reese on Thursday, when he was told that he was being let go.

"I appreciate everything the Giants organization has done for me," Pierce said. "I told both Tom Coughlin and Jerry Reese when I sat in front of them that I have no animosity, I have no anger. It's nowhere near that kind of situation. You might not agree with everything that's said, but you understand how the game is. It comes and goes."

Second-year pro Jonathan Goff started at middle linebacker after Pierce was hurt, although Chase Blackburn has also played the position for New York.

Pierce said winning the Super Bowl was his proudest moment from a team standpoint, while having the respect of his fellow players was his personal highlight.

"When I came to New York I wanted to be a dominant player and help this organization win a championship, which we did in Super Bowl XLII," Pierce said. "I wanted to be a leader and I did that and was voted a captain for three years and another two years when we didn't have captains and I was still out there. I wanted to be a guy who always led by example, a guy you could count on every day. You never had to worry if A.P. was going to be at practice or if he was going to show up for the game. I was going to be there."

Pierce still feels he can play, adding his neck injury should not be a problem if he wants to play a 10th NFL season.

"A.P. came right in and took the bull by the horns from day one and was very instrumental in helping the New York Giants win a lot of games and accomplishing a lot of our goals during his time here," Reese said. "He has been an outstanding Giant and we wish him nothing but the best for his family and future."

Pierce finished his final season with the Giants with 51 tackles (31 solo), three tackles for losses, a sack, two passes defensed, a forced fumble and a fumble recovery. His five-year totals with the Giants were 537 tackles (322 solo), seven sacks, six forced fumbles, seven fumble recoveries and four interceptions. Pierce also had 44 postseason tackles (28 solo).

An undrafted free agent, Pierce played his first four seasons with the Washington Redskins.

"I have nothing but very strong love for the New York Giants," Pierce said. "Obviously, I wanted to end it when my contract ended, but it didn't. It ended a year early. But I have no regrets. I have nothing to look back on and wish I had done it differently. Now it's time to look forward at the possibilities that I have."