2006-01-06 / Sports

Panthers Pose Tough Wild Card Challenge To Giants

By Michael Avallone Sports Columnist

By Michael Avallone
Sports Columnist

New York Giants’ Tiki Barber (21) breaks through the Oakland Raiders’ defense including cornerback Nnandi Asomugha, left, on his way to 95-yard rushing touchdown. (AP Photo/Jeff Chiu)
New York Giants’ Tiki Barber (21) breaks through the Oakland Raiders’ defense including cornerback Nnandi Asomugha, left, on his way to 95-yard rushing touchdown. (AP Photo/Jeff Chiu) Of all the teams the Giants could have drawn for their wild-card playoff game, the Panthers were the worst possible choice.

Consider the alternatives: The Cowboys? The Giants already had beaten them. Same with the Redskins, even if their last meeting was a Washington win. But that was at FedEx Field; this one would have been at home. The Buccaneers? The Giants would have had to play on the road, but Tampa’s offense is highly inconsistent.

The Panthers? This is a scary team right now. Even at Giants Stadium, where the Giants are 8-1 this season.

No. 1: The Giants ranked 15th out of 16 teams in the NFC in passing yards allowed, surrendering an average of 224 per game. With that in mind, the specter of wide receiver Steve Smith – who is coming off his most prolific season ever, with 103 catches for 1,563 yards and 12 touchdowns – makes this matchup problematic. Big Blue’s secondary has been a constant source of concern all season. Look no further than the last two weeks when the two Moss’ (Randy and Santana) torched New York for 276 yards and five TDs on just 12 receptions.

Carolina Panthers’ Al Wallace (96) is one example of their ferocious defense as he runs down Atlanta Falcons quarterback Michael Vick (7) during Carolina’s 44-11 blowout victory. (AP Photo/Bill Haber)
Carolina Panthers’ Al Wallace (96) is one example of their ferocious defense as he runs down Atlanta Falcons quarterback Michael Vick (7) during Carolina’s 44-11 blowout victory. (AP Photo/Bill Haber) No. 2: Since taking over for the injury-plagued Stephen Davis on Nov. 27, running back DeShaun Foster has averaged 93 rushing yards per game, including Sunday’s 165-yard effort against the Falcons. Who knows how many yards he’d have gained had he not been taken out early in the third quarter?

Nos. 3 and 4: Coach John Fox, a former Giants assistant, is one of the brightest defensive minds in the game, and offensive coordinator Dan Henning is one of the league’s most gifted strategists on the other side of the ball.

Despite all the positives about the Panthers, the Giants should show up for the game. In fact, they’re still favored to win it. But when you consider the Giants’ weaknesses and look at the Panthers’ strengths, it would come as no surprise whatsoever to see Carolina, which went all the way to the Super Bowl after the 2003 season, advance to the second round.

The Giants’ two biggest problems are on defense, where an overmatched secondary and an injury-riddled linebacking corps are major issues heading into the postseason. Let’s put it this way: If Panthers quarterback Jake Delhomme sees Smith line up one-on-one against cornerback Curtis Deloatch, where do you think he’s going with the ball?

And if the Giants were to bench Deloatch, as they did in the second half against the Raiders, do you think Smith would have any problems getting open against Terrell Buckley? Or even the Giants’ most consistent corner, Will Allen?

The run defense is equally suspect without linebacker Antonio Pierce. The Giants did a heck of a job against the Raiders, given that starting middle linebacker Kevin Lewis hadn’t played a down all season until Saturday night. But Zack Crockett was the starting tailback in place of the injured LaMont Jordan, so it was a mismatch from the start. Crockett is a short-yardage specialist, and he couldn’t even do that - see the Giants’ goal-line stand in the fourth quarter that sealed it.

Foster is a much more accomplished back who is coming into his own as a starter now that Davis is on injured reserve. He is a terrific cut-back runner who has enough speed to turn the corner and enough power to run between the tackles and create big plays. Such as the 70-yard run he pulled off in the first quarter against Atlanta on a play Henning designed specifically to take advantage of the Falcons’ overpursuit.

If Foster establishes the run early, Delhomme will be that much more efficient because the play-action pass will be that much more dangerous. Freeze those inexperienced linebackers for just a split-second by faking the run, and Smith will be that much more open down the field.

Do the Panthers have any weaknesses? Sure. They, too, have been inconsistent at times on both sides of the ball. They have a reputation of having a defense that can be as intimidating as any, but then how do they explain that abysmal performance two weeks ago against the Cowboys, when they surrendered 194 rushing yards and two touchdowns to Julius Jones in a 24-20 home loss with a playoff berth on the line? And Delhomme, who made it to the Pro Bowl this season, has had his bad moments, especially when the running game has sputtered and he’s been forced to throw.

All in all, the two teams do match up fairly evenly, but it will come down to who executes best in the fourth quarter. Despite New York’s bumps and bruises, the home-field advantage should be the difference maker, allowing Big Blue to eke out a 20-17 win on Sunday afternoon.

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