Carolina on New York's mind

Beware G-men. Those boys from Carolina are a wild, unpredictable bunch. Part loose cannon, part crazy fox. How else do you explain the season? After starting out 1-2, the Panthers went 8-1 from October 3 to December 4, only to go 2-2 in the final four games and lose the division crown. Their collapse meant they had to win the season finale at Atlanta to sneak into the playoffs as the fifth seed. Stranger still, both those December losses came in front of the home crowd.

After a convincing 24-6 win over Atlanta in Week 13 to improve to 9-3, Carolina's mighty defense folded like a New Year's resolution. They lost the next game at home to Tampa Bay 20-10, while allowing apprentice QB Chris Simms to complete 20-of-27 passes without an interception and Cadillac Williams to motor to two TDs and 112 yards on the ground. Two weeks later they lost a controversial 24-20 stinger to the Cowboys. The controversy being the roughing the kicker penalty called late in the game on defensive end Julius Peppers, despite the replay clearly showing the field goal attempt was partially blocked. Of course, those who want to be picky and say the Panthers deserved to lose would probably point to Julius Jones's 194 yards rushing and two TDs.

Hey, Tiki, are you taking notes?

Still last week when Carolina needed to beat the Falcons again, this time in the hostile Georgia Dome – a place they hadn't won since 1997 – they not only prevailed, but ransacked their rivals with flawless ball, winning 44-11. The win was so one-sided it seemed more like a Tar Heels basketball victory over the Delaware Blue Hens. It started with a fiery pre-game speech from veteran receiver Ricky Proehl, who is actually a year older than Giants great Del Shofner. Proehl, in his 16th season and his fifth team, said something like, "Let's win by throwing me a 12-yard TD pass on the first drive," and QB Jake Delhomme went out and did it, finishing up by completing 14-of-20 passes for 163 yards and two TDs. Steve Smith scored on a Jake bomb for the other TD and running back DeShaun Foster lit up the ground game with 165 yards and a blistering 70-yard scamper, the longest in team history.

Defensively, the Panthers showed why they finished third in the league in total D and second in takeaways, notching five sacks, an interception and three fumbles. As always, it starts up front with perhaps the most havoc-wreaking D-line in the league: All-world Peppers, DTs Brentson Buckner and Jordan Carstens, and right end Mike Rucker. And that's with their best lineman, DT Kris Jenkins, on IR.

And that's all any of the 32 teams shoot for on opening day, isn't it?

In addition to the defensive front, the Panthers are stocked with toughness and speed. Pro Bowler Dan Morgan mans the middle with former Giant Brandon Short on the strong side, and Will Witherspoon on the weak. The DBs include CBs Chris Gamble, free agent acquisition Ken Lucas and safeties Marlon McCree, veteran Mike Minter and rookie Thomas Davis, a linebacker from Georgia. With Davis and CB Ricky Manning, a former star, in support, the D has solid depth.

The offensive backfield started the year with Stephen Davis at running back, Delhomme taking snaps, receiver Steve Smith hoping to rebound from a broken leg and second-year man Keary Colbert looking to replace the departed Muhsin Muhammad. It finished the year with Davis shelved, but not before scoring 12 TDs. Foster, Mr. Outside, took up the slack and contributed 879 yards even though he started only five games. Smith finished with one of the better receiving seasons in recent history, leading the league in catches (103, tied with Larry Fitzgerald), yards (1,563) and TDs (12, tied with Marvin Harrison). On the flip side, however, Colbert all but disappeared with 25 catches for just 282. The ancient Proehl once again filled the gaps with 441 yards.

Along the line, tight end Kris Mangum provided solid run blocking and the occasional safety valve with 23 catches for 202 yards and two scores. But TE Michael Gaines is starting to get more looks in the passing game. The blockers, however, have been dinged most of the season but showed resiliency throughout. The opening-day starters – tackles Travelle Wharton and Jordan Gross, guards Mike Wahle and Tutan Reyes and center Jeff Mitchell – got relief along the way from two rookies – center Geoff Hangartner and guard Evan Mathis.

As coach John Fox said, "That's why you have starters and why you have backups."

As if anyone cares, Jason Baker handles the punts. And John Kasay, who, incredibly, has been with the team since its expansion year, still wins games with his leg.

For Carolina, the 2005 season has been all about overcoming personal tragedy and the media hype over how great they were going to be. On April 18, just days before the NFL draft, assistant coach Sam Mills, a five-time Pro Bowl linebacker and the only former player enshrined in the Panthers Hall of Fame, succumbed to cancer at 45. Linebacker Mark Fields, a year removed from Hodgkin's disease, announced the cancer had come back and was taking another year off. Then, in August, Sports Illustrated named Carolina their preseason Super Bowl favorite. Strange considering the Panthers, after their improbable 2003 Super Bowl appearance, finished 2004 with a mediocre 7-9 record.

Even though the Giants haven't played Carolina since 2003, the G-men have a good idea of what Carolina brings to the table: Experience. The Panthers have been to the playoffs and they've won some big games. For all their strides this season, the Giants lack playoff experience in the most critical position. Quarterback.

New York faced Carolina during this year's preseason. The good news is they won the game, 27-21. The scary thing is they got more than a passing glance at the power and scoring ability of that venerable defense. During one series, Peppers blew past Giants tackle Kareem McKenzie, sacked Manning and scooped up the ensuing fumble on the fly 29 effortless yards to the end zone. The jaw-dropping feat included Peppers spiking the ball through the cross bar.

Manning made amends on the next series by firing a 41-yard TD strike to Amani Toomer and finished his short outing with impressive, albeit peculiar, stats: 3-of-9 for 150 yards and two TDs for a Peyton-like rating of 121.5.

"We turned the ball over, we made big plays," coach Tom Coughlin said afterward. "We didn't sustain a whole lot."

On the other side of the ball, though, Delhomme threw two silly picks, which became a precursor to his upcoming '05 season: he threw 16 interceptions, finished 11th in yards (3,421) and 12th in passing rating (88.1). Manning's rating of 75.9 left him ranked 23rd.

The winner of Sunday's wild card game will be the team who can protect their QB, chew up the clock and score TDs instead of field goals. Turnovers, of course, also will play a key. Although the Giants' real key to victory, again, will be how effectively they can unleash Barber on Carolina's risk-taking D.

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