Playoff Round 1: Giants vs. Panthers

The Carolina Panthers enter Sunday's first-round playoff game against the Giants with a roar after destroying the Atlanta Falcons 44-11 in the regular season finale at the Georgia Dome to earn post-season life as a wild card.

Coached by former Giants defensive coordinator John Fox, the Panthers boast a secondary-killing wide receiver in Steve Smith, who caught a team-record 103 passes this season, an experienced offensive leader in quarterback Jake Delhomme and a powerful defense led by defensive end Julius Peppers, linebacker Will Witherspoon and shutdown cornerbacks Chris Gamble and Ken Lucas.

And these Panthers clearly aren't intimidated by playing on the road against the NFC East champions.

"We match up with anybody," defensive tackle Brentson Buckner said after the Panthers demolition of the Falcons. "If they tell us to come out and play on the moon, we'll play on the moon. Everything we want to do is still ahead of us. We didn't win the [NFC South] division, but we're in. We took care of business."

Fox added, "We've had a few opportunities here in the last month and it basically got down to one [game] left. Fortunately, we were able to get over the hump."

They face another one this Sunday at Giants Stadium.


Yes, the Panthers do have one of the league's most fearsome run defenses – but they have also shown some chinks in the armor, as witnessed by the 194 yards they yielded to Dallas' Julius Jones two weeks ago in a loss to the Cowboys. This unforeseen event is certain to buoy the spirits of Giants RB Tiki Barber, who blasted his way for 203 remarkable yards in Big Blue's division-clinching victory over the Oakland Raiders. Ranked No. 5 in the league in rushing yards allowed per game (95.6), Carolina is powered by athletic linebacker Will Witherspoon and strong safety Marlon McCree, the team's leading tackler with 88 stops. Middle linebacker Dan Morgan has been banged up and may have to give way to Chris Draft, a reliable backup, while outside linebacker Brandon Short, the former Giant, has played well this season and is especially tough against the run. Defensive tackles Brentson Buckner and Jordan Carstens do a fine job cutting off running lanes in the middle. And, before we forget, the Panthers also have what is undeniably one of the NFL's best DE bookends in super-quick Julius Peppers and Mike Rucker, both of whom have the speed to penetrate into the backfield and pursue and track down runners before they can turn the corner and square their shoulders.



This doesn't look like a good match-up for Big Blue in general and the offensive line in particular because of the formidable presence of Carolina defensive ends Julius Peppers and Mike Rucker. If the Giants' Michael Strahan and Osi Umenyiora are the league's premier duo at DE, Peppers and Rucker aren't far behind. Peppers, a genetic marvel who stands 6-6, weighs 280 pounds and runs like a tailback, leads Carolina with 10.5 sacks while Rucker has registered 7.5. The pressure they bring from the edges could certainly force QB Eli Manning into some errant throwing decisions, which plays right into the hands (no pun intended) of the Panthers' crafty, alert and opportunistic secondary. Cornerbacks Ken Lucas and Chris Gamble are excellent in one-on-one coverage. Gamble recorded seven interceptions – including one for a touchdown – in the regular season, while Lucas had six. Tough strong safety Marlon McCree, meanwhile, will be called upon to cover TE Jeremy Shockey and offer downfield assistance on WR Plaxico Burress. McCree had three thefts this year. Free safety Mike Minter is a steady veteran with excellent tackling skills. The Panthers' pass defense was ranked 11th in the league this season, allowing 191.5 yards per game. Given the heat Carolina is expected to bring to Manning, Tiki Barber should have a slew of catches as the "hot" receiver.



This has been a breakout season for Panthers' RB DeShaun Foster, who ran for 165 yards in his team's resounding Week 17 victory over the Falcons, and recorded 879 yards (4.3 per carry, two TDs) for the season. Foster has become especially important to Carolina's offensive fortunes since the team put oft-injured RB Stephen Davis on injured reserve last month. He runs behind an offensive line manned by tackles Travelle Wharton and Jordan Gross, guards Mike Wahle and Queens native Tutan Reyes and center Jeff Mitchell. Foster, a slasher with excellent cutting skills and speed, runs equally effectively between and outside the tackles. His backup is Nick Goings (37 carries, 133 yards, 3.6 average) a hardnosed runner with power. But despite Foster's productivity, Carolina ended the regular season with the NFL's No. 21-ranked running attack, averaging 96.7 yards per game and only 3.2 a carry – the latter stat putting them at a lowly 31st in the league.



Panthers' veteran WR Steve Smith had one of the NFL's greatest seasons in history with a mind-blowing 103 receptions for 1,563 yards a 15.2 average per catch and 12 touchdowns. Smith will be a load for Big Blue's inconsistent secondary if the front seven can't get into quarterback Jake Delhomme's face. Smith possesses good speed, impressive body control and runs superb routes as he demonstrated during a season in which he kept defensive coordinators up till the wee hours. Delhomme, meanwhile, completed 262 of 435 throws (60.2 percent) for 3,421 yards and 24 touchdowns. And yes, he can be forced into bad throws as evidenced by the 16 picks he tossed this season. Carolina's offensive line did a fine job protecting their Cajun QB this season, yielding just 28 sacks. Giants defensive ends Michael Strahan and Osi Umenyiora will clash with talented tackles Jordan Gross, a former first-round draft pick, and Travelle Wharton. On the rare occasions when Smith wasn't open, Delhomme threw to RB DeShaun Foster (34 catches, 372 yards, one TD), and WRs Keary Colbert (25-282, 11.3 average, two TDs) and Ricky Proehl – a northern New Jersey native who might be playing his final NFL game back home. Proehl, who primarily lines up in the slot, is among the NFL's top clutch receivers. He concluded the regular season with 25 receptions for 441 yards and four touchdowns. Tight end Kris Mangum had only 23 catches for 202 yards and two scores. The Giants' ability to limit Smith's productivity is THE KEY to the final outcome.



The Panthers are blessed with outstanding special teams, ranking second in the league in punt-return average and third in net punting average – with P Jason Baker producing an impressive 38.9 net with 23 boots inside opponents' 20-yard line. If WR Steve Smith isn't killing you on offense he is returning punts for a 10.6 average. Chris Gamble also is utilized as a punt returner, averaging 11.3 yards with a long runback of 76 yards. Rod "He Hate Me" Smart, isn't tearing it up this season, averaging only 21.2 yards per kickoff return, but he remains dangerous as illustrated by his long runback of 60 yards. Kicker John Kasay finished the regular season with 26 field goals on 34 attempts. Kasay has had difficulties from long range, converting six of nine from 40 to 49 yards and only three of eight from 50-plus. The swirling, unpredictable winds of Giants Stadium could make his long-distance attempts an adventure.



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