EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. (AP) _ Tiki Barber isn't going to be the next Dave Meggett for the New York Giants. He's probably going to be Jim Fassel's opening-day halfback.

Fassel wouldn't confirm that Saturday in reviewing a 22-17 loss to Green Bay on Friday night, but Barber's performance in the preseason has been outstanding.

The second-round draft pick from Virginia finished as the Giants' leading rusher with 165 yards on 34 carries, a 4.9-yard average. He also tied for the club lead with 13 receptions for 120 yards.

With Rodney Hampton, the Giants' career rushing leader, expected to be sidelined a couple of weeks following knee surgery, and Tyrone Wheatley still showing signs of inconsistency, expect Barber to line up behind quarterback Dave Brown next Sunday for the regular-season opener against Philadelphia at Giants Stadium.

Barber wasn't willing to claim the starting job Saturday.

``I'm going to play it by ear,'' he said. ``I want to be the starter. I think I have proven I can be. I knew I could always do this. I've always been confident in what I could do. I expect to succeed all the time. That's why I end up doing so well. I never let myself get down and I am always working hard.''

Many sold Barber short after he was drafted. Most experts considered him a third-down back, someone who could run or catch a pass out of the backfield and double as a punt and kickoff returner.

Few considered him a full-time player, maybe because of his size, 5-foot-10 and 205 pounds.

After missing a week of training camp because of a hamstring injury, Barber has opened a lot of eyes, especially in the last two games against the Jets and Packers. He gained 55 yards on 11 carries and caught four passes for 39 yards in the opening half against the Super Bowl champions on Friday.

Barber came very close to breaking a 24-yard screen pass for a touchdown late in the half.

``I'm just mad at myself that I haven't gotten in the end zone yet,'' Barber said. ``That will come. It's just a matter of getting used to it. I'll be all right.''

Veteran guard Lance Smith, who continues to push Greg Bishop for the starting job at left guard, said Barber is very impressive for a rookie.

``Yesterday when he ran the screen, he just made so many people miss him,'' Smith said. ``It's unbelievable. He is the kind of guy you love to have in the backfield because he can do a lot of things, especially in the open field.''

The only rookie halfback Smith recalled having this much of an impact on the team was Johnny Johnson with Arizona. He went to the Pro Bowl his rookie season.

``Tiki is unbelievable,'' Smith added. ``I saw him in college. The way he played in college, he played the same way. He was a great back who played big in big games.''

Hampton, who had knee surgery Monday, is equally impressed.

``I watched the guy in college and he was born to run,'' said Hampton, who will have to show a lot when he returns to replace Barber.

The big question will be the reaction of Wheatley if Barber starts. The 1995 first-round draft pick was frustrated sitting behind Hampton in his first two seasons and it might be a major blow to sit behind Barber.

When one teammate was asked how Wheatley might respond, he just rolled his eyes and smiled.

Wheatley gained 37 yards on 13 carries in the second half, scoring on a 1-yard run. He finished the exhibition season with 96 yards on 33 carries, a 2.9-yard average, and four receptions for 13 yards.

``I thought Tyrone tried to run harder,'' Fassel said. ``He put his pads down and pushed the pocket a little bit.''

Fassel said Wheatley is working hard to do what the coaches want. He was not concerned about how Wheatley might react to being a backup.

``Everybody on this football team will have a role and they will understand that role,'' Fassel said. ``I expect them to be men and accept that role, and when they are called upon, to go.''