2006-01-13 / Sports

The Giant Debacle: Big Blue Embarassed By Panthers

By Michael Avallone Sports Columnist

By Michael Avallone
Sports Columnist

Instead of scoring more touchdowns in the second round, New York Giants running back Tiki Barber is packing his bags for the offseason as he leaves Giants Stadium for the last time this season. (AP Photo/Bill Kostroun)
Instead of scoring more touchdowns in the second round, New York Giants running back Tiki Barber is packing his bags for the offseason as he leaves Giants Stadium for the last time this season. (AP Photo/Bill Kostroun)

The last time the New York Giants played a playoff game at the Meadowlands – five years ago – they crushed the Minnesota Vikings 41-0 in the NFC championship game on their way to Super Bowl XXXV. On Sunday, they were on the receiving end of a similarly suffocating defensive effort. The Carolina Panthers completely dominated Big Blue on Sunday, winning every possible matchup in their 23-0 NFC wild-card game victory.

Former Giants defensive coordinator and now Panthers head coach John Fox – who was instrumental in New York’s drive to the Super Bowl five years ago – devised a plan that reduced one of the NFL’s most prolific offenses this season (422 points, an average of 26 per game) to mere slop.

The Panthers ran 71 plays to the Giants’ 35. They gained 335 yards to the Giants’ 132. Their time of possession edge was an overwhelming 42:45 to 17:15. They managed 23 first downs to New York’s nine and forced five turnovers, including three interceptions.

It was the first time a home team had been shut out in a playoff game since the Los Angeles Rams beat the Tampa Bay Buccaneers 9-0 in the 1979 NFC championship game. The Giants hadn’t been shut out in a home playoff game since 1943, when the Redskins prevailed 28-0 at the Polo Grounds.

Approaching the game, Fox came to this logical conclusion: He would commit his prolific defense to stopping Tiki Barber – whose 2,390 total yards were the second-highest total in league history – and take his chances with Eli Manning, a second-year player in his first playoff game who has loads of potential but struggled mightily down the stretch.

By crowding the line of scrimmage with the front seven, plus safeties Marlon McCree and Mike Minter, the Panthers’ defense suffocated Barber. He carried the ball 13 times, gaining a season-low 41 yards. A receiving threat out of the backfield, Barber added only three catches for an additional 28 yards.

Manning, meanwhile, felt the pressure. He completed only 10 of 18 passes for 113 yards. He threw three interceptions and was sacked four times. Plaxico Burress, his leading receiver during the regular season, did not catch a single pass.

About Manning’s poor performance Barber said, “You can’t discount experience.”

The Giants’ Michael Strahan and Osi Umenyiora combined for three sacks after totaling 26 during the regular season but neither could fluster Panthers’ QB Jake Delhomme into making a mistake.

The Panthers, on balance, are not a dangerous offensive team. Wide receiver Steve Smith led the NFL in receiving yardage, but the running game was dormant for much of the season, which made Sunday’s explosion all the more surprising.

Playing without any of their starting linebackers, New York’s trio of Kevin Lewis, Alonzo Jackson and Nick Greisen made DeShaun Foster look like Shaun Alexander. He carried 27 times for 151 yards while Nick Goings added 12 carries for 63 yards. All told, Carolina ran the ball 45 times for 223 yards – 182 more than the Giants.

Smith scored the game’s only two touchdowns, the first on a 22-yard second-quarter catch, the second on a 12-yard reverse midway through the third quarter that made the score an overwhelming 17-0.

Heading into the game, it seemed the Giants’ only advantage was playing at home. They won eight of nine games at the Meadowlands in the regular season – nine of ten if you count their “road” game against the New Orleans Saints – but the Panthers were 6-2 on the road, the NFC’s best record.

In the end, the Panthers played like a team that was in the Super Bowl two seasons ago, while the Giants looked like a team that hadn’t been to the postseason since 2002.

So now what? One thing New York has to address is the secondary. CB Will Peterson missed the final 14 games after suffering a serious back injury for the second time in three seasons while the other Will – CB Will Allen – had another inconsistent season, his first without an INT. Allen is an unrestricted free agent, and it’s unclear if the Giants will offer him a salary that will be to his liking. Rookie CB Corey Webster and second-year player Curtis DeLoatch showed promise, but New York placed 27 th in passing yards allowed (224 per game).

The Giants’ run defense was largely successful (103.5 yards per game) injuries to Antonio Pierce, Reggie Torbor and Carlos Emmons decimated the linebacking corps, forcing coach Tom Coughlin to plug reserves and free agent signings into the lineup. More depth is needed in case injury problems pop up again in 2006.

Sunday’s game was as ugly as it gets. It won’t be easy for the Giants to forget. However, 60 bad minutes of football does not erase what the team accomplished this season. Picked by many to be a .500 team at best, Big Blue rode the hot start of Manning, the brilliance of Barber and the tenacious defense of Strahan and Umenyiora to an 11-5 record and the organization’s first NFC East title since 2000.

The future looks bright in East Rutherford, but the present will sting for awhile.

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