TAMPA, JAN. 24 -- Lawrence Taylor began the week by asking for patience. "I have a cold and a little hangover," he said.

He had played like the game's best-ever defensive player when his New York Giants eliminated the San Francisco 49ers on Sunday, and he apparently had celebrated like a champion as well. He looked tired, his voice was raspy, and walking up a flight of stairs to take a seat at Tampa Stadium seemed to spend every ounce of his energy when he showed up at Tuesday's picture day.

A day later, asked about something he had said Tuesday, he replied, "I have no idea what I said yesterday."

But on that first day, he later found a reservoir of second wind because local newspapers ran pictures of him clowning with Buffalo quarterback Jim Kelly at a local saloon that night.

He may be the greatest defensive player in history. At the very least, he's one of the most feared and most ferocious players of all time and this week Lawrence Taylor has been the most watched, most followed and most quoted player leading up to Super Bowl XXV.

He has spoken about the Bills, about his often turbulent relationship with Coach Bill Parcells and about himself, especially about himself.

After 10 seasons and 10 Pro Bowl selections, Taylor is now awarded the ultimate compliment -- his own position. Coaches and general managers talk of drafting "an LT" or moving someone into "an LT role."

That means a 6-foot-3, 243-pound linebacker who has the strength to take on offensive tackles and the speed to cover tight ends and running backs out of the backfield.

The Bills arrived here having scored 95 points in two playoff games. But they know they must account for LT on every snap. They have many ways to win, but the Giants have the game's best defense and its most feared defender.

"I'll tell you how good he is," Bills center Kent Hull said. "When we go to the line of scrimmage, every linemen will notice where he is. He lines up at left end and right end, and he can also come right up the middle. Even the linemen not in the game will notice where he's lining up."

He's the first player ever selected to the Pro Bowl in his first 10 seasons, and the legend around Lawrence Taylor has grown much larger than his own wide shoulders.

Players respect him and fear him because of what he does on the field, but the legend has grown beyond that. Not just that he claims to have whipped a cocaine problem by playing golf. Not just because he has played some of his best games after some of his latest nights.

"I hold him in awe," a former teammate said.

That teammate remembers sitting in the training room one Saturday morning when Taylor walked in looking awful. He grunted a few times, then plunged his head into a chest filled with ice water.

"It seemed like he had his head down there 10 minutes," the teammate said. "Then he gets up, grunts some more and leaves. That day, he walked onto the field and plopped on a bench and slept."

Another teammate remembers hearing that Taylor often slept through defensive meetings and still knew the game plan Sunday. Thanks to NFL Films, some of his collisions will be watched forever.

He's the guy who ended Joe Theismann's career with a gruesome hit, and he's still capable of the occasionally awesome performance like the 12 tackles, 2 1/2 sacks and forced fumble he had against Minnesota in Week 13.

The Bills know all of this, but watching him and stopping him are two different things. As Taylor himself said yesterday: "This is the last game of the season and you don't hold anything back. You line up and go."

How do the Bills prepare?

"The guy's a rebel," an NFC coach said. "I don't think the Giants always know where he's going to line up or what he's going to do, so how is anyone else to know?"

One of the dozens of questions Taylor fielded this week was: "Lawrence, Mickey Mantle once said that if he'd known he was going to live this long, he would have taken better care of himself. Do you feel the same way?"

Taylor: "No, I don't look back and say I should have handled things some other way. I'm a little calmer now."

He was asked if the long nights have shortened his career. "I don't think so," he said. "I'd like to play until I'm 100. I'm just getting older."

He's 31 now and this season there have been whispers he has slowed down, that his 78-rpm lifestyle has started to catch up with him. He had three sacks in the opener against Philadelphia and one the next week vs. Dallas.

He had 6 1/2 the remainder of the season -- 2 1/2 against the Vikings -- and at times looked less than fearsome. "People are always looking for something," Giants linebacker Carl Banks said. "He may not be what he once was, but he's still better than anyone else. Maybe the Kansas City guy {Derrick Thomas} is getting close, but LT has played long enough that he can combine his own skills with those of people around him. People that say he has slowed should play with him.

"They should see the way he prepares in the locker room. Sometimes, it looks as if he's going crazy. He looks like he's ready to explode. Other days he just sits back rocking in his locker and thinking through it. He's the type of guy that the violence of the game really drives him."

Taylor: "I know my limitations. Everyone expects me to play like I'm 22. I'm not 22 and I know that. That doesn't mean I can't still play. I can and I can also take advantage of the people around me, which is something you only get by playing."

He was one of the most-awaited Giants at this morning's last round of news conferences. He arrived dressed in slacks, a straw hat and a polo shirt. He wore a large gold bracelet encrusted with "LT" in diamonds.

He was fashionably late -- about 30 minutes -- and spoke for just 12 minutes.

He's one of 19 Giants remaining from the Super Bowl XXI team, and by far the most valuable. One of the hard-to-believe facts about the Giants is that when Parcells became coach in 1983, he had his two building blocks -- Taylor and quarterback Phil Simms (who is injured and won't play Sunday) -- in place.

Parcells has gone 84-52-1 (60-25 the last five seasons) and Taylor and Simms have been the biggest stars on every one of those teams. Only the San Francisco 49ers, with Joe Montana and Ronnie Lott, have been as stable for such a long period, and their success has been greater than even that of the Giants.

"I've been fortunate to have them here," Parcells said. "You have a separate and different relationship with those guys. We're three similar personalities and from time to time that leads to head-butting. It's very special."

Their sideline screaming matches have been captured on national television more than once, and Parcells was especially tough on Taylor in the early years.

"Our relationship has grown over the years," Taylor said. "The thing is, we wanted the same thing for each other. We didn't always agree on how to get there."

Taylor was asked several times this week how much longer he intends to play (he wouldn't answer) and what he intended to do after football (he faked it).

"I want to swing a golf club," he said. "No, I want to raise sheep. I really don't know. Right now, I'm going to try to win a football game and that's the most important thing. In one, two or three years, who knows?"

Asked about the most fun he has had in football, he said: "Playing in those strike games in 1987. Just watching those guys I was playing with was fun. I'm used to not saying anything, just getting ready and seeing how others are getting ready. Those guys were hilarious. They were walking around, taking my picture, having me pose with them. It made me feel really old."