Twenty Years Later, Giants Need To Step It Up

It seemed like old times at Giants Stadium during the NFC Wild-Card Playoffs, when a Super Bowl team graced the Meadowlands' playing field once again. Unfortunately for the Giants, that Super Bowl team was the Carolina Panthers, just two seasons removed from their appearance in Super Bowl XXXVIII, and looking every bit up to the task of trying to reach Super Bowl XL.

They pounded the Giants in every way possible – physically, mentally, and most importantly, on the scoreboard - 23-0. It's been nine years since the Giants were shutout by anybody (24-0 at Philadelphia in '96), and nearly 20 years to the day that they were last blanked in the playoffs.

That would be January 5th, 1986, in a 21-0 loss to the Chicago Bears at Soldier Field, in a game that was a lot closer than the Panthers debacle that just recently took place on January 8th. But fret not Giants fans, for this is the playoffs, and the Panthers are much more experienced squad, who knows how to take it to the next level.

"You can't discount experience," Giants running back Tiki Barber was saying afterward, "and the urgency it takes to get it done at this level in the playoffs."

In fact, in the disappointed home locker room after the loss, longtime Giants linebacker, and current broadcaster, Harry Carson was telling some of the younger players, "hey, it's the playoffs. You've got to take your game up to another level."

He ought to know. It was Carson's Giants, who were beaten on that cold day in the Windy City exactly 20 years ago. And according to his teammate Carl Banks – also now a broadcaster – it was that painful loss that propelled the Giants to the next level. As the famous story goes, head coach Bill Parcells told his troops afterward, "We've got a lot of work to do to get to the level of that team out there today." Still, Banks said that no words were necessary after that loss.

"You just felt it," he said. "The players more so than Parcells."

And as that pain coursed through their veins, the players used it as motivation to come back, and work harder, and get to that next level just one year later when they defeated the Denver Broncos 39-20 in Super Bowl XXI. Can these Giants take the same thing from this tough Carolina loss?

"I think that's the only thing that they can take from this," said Banks. "The playoffs are a whole different speed. Physically (the Giants) were beaten. They were pushed around more than I've seen them in a long time."

They were pushed around by the Carolina defense, who limited the New York offense to 154 total yards, while sacking Eli Manning four times and picking him off three times.

They were pushed around by Panthers' Pro Bowl receiver Steve Smith, who victimized the Giants' proud defense for 10 catches, 84 yards and a touchdown, and added in a 12-yard rushing TD for good measure.

They were pushed around by a team with a clutch quarterback that came within just a few seconds of taking Tom Brady and the three-time World Champion New England Patriots into overtime in the Super Bowl, a few short years ago.

But, most of all, they were pushed around by fate, which had them starting Kevin Lewis at middle linebacker – their fourth such player at that position - just two weeks after he was picked up off the street for his first NFL action since being released in training camp. A little statistic that prompted Giants' Pro Bowl defensive end Michael Strahan to note, "in some cases, you've got the backup's backup in there."

Either way, it all made for a perfect recipe for disaster. At least for one day.

"I've stood here for a lot of great moments this season, moments that I'm very proud of," New York head coach Tom Coughlin lamented. "This is obviously not one of them.

"The thing that I mentioned to our players today was that the one thing that I didn't tell them was that when you're in the playoffs and you don't win and advance, it really makes you wonder what you accomplished over the course of the 16 games. Now that will pass tomorrow, or maybe the day after, but right now it's not a very good feeling.

"The players are down, but they will bounce back. I told them to get their heads up. We started to restore New York Giant pride. We have a long way to go, we have a lot of work to do, and hopefully we can come back with greater resolve and get back in this thing with a little different story."

Just as Banks' crew did the following season. Only then will the Giants be on the level of this Carolina Panthers team.

"It doesn't mean (their) a bad team," Banks explained. "It doesn't take away anything (they) did during the regular season. It just shows them how much harder they have to work."

"For the younger guys," said Strahan, "I think they see that for the playoffs, it's a totally different game. It's a different game. But, it also makes them hungry. I mean, you want to advance.

"When you've got young guys that are only going to get better, it makes you excited about what the future holds. It makes me want to be a part of it."

One of those ‘young guys' Strahan was talking about was sophomore QB Eli Manning, who only has 20-something starts under his belt. Banks estimated it would take 32 starts before he completely worked out all of the kinks. That would be halfway through next season, which Manning is already pointing to.

"(I'm) still learning," Manning said after his worst start of the season. "Still not anywhere near where I need to be. I've got a lot of learning to do. We had a good season, though. We still can't forget that, but we're not playing at a high enough level. I look forward to coming back (next season)."

As does Coach Coughlin.

"(Wellington Mara and Bob Tisch) would say that this (loss) is not a great moment, but winning the division was a solid effort and guys stood up and played hard and gave great effort, and they would be proud of that.

"And, they would encourage the players to take the 16-game season and build on that and go forward to having a better season in 2006."

And, hopefully then, it will be the Giants who are the Super Bowl team gracing the Meadowlands' playing field.

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