New York Giants (6-6) at Carolina Panthers (6-6)
KICKOFF: Sunday, 1:00 ET
TV: FOX, Joe Buck, Troy Aikman, Pam Oliver
SERIES: 4th meeting. Panthers lead series 3-0. The Panthers defense held a New York Giants offense that ranked third in the NFL in points per game scoreless en route to a 23-0 win on Jan. 8 in the NFC divisional playoffs. Carolina became the first team to register a shutout win on the road since the Los Angeles Rams beat Tampa Bay Buccaneers 9-0 in the 1979 NFC Championship game.
2006 RANKINGS: Giants: offense 11th (7th rush, 15th pass); defense 15th (11th rush, 23rd pass). Panthers: offense 19th (18th rush, 17th pass); defense 11th (13th rush, 10th pass)
KEYS TO THE GAME: RB DeShaun Foster appears as though he will return after missing two games, but the Panthers are concerned about QB Jake Delhomme's bruised thumb. If he's unable to go, backup Chris Weinke will see his first action of the season. Whether it's Delhomme or Weinke, the Panthers need to take advantage of the Giants' secondary. WRs Steve Smith and Keyshawn Johnson not only have a mismatch against the corners, but the Giants have been getting shaky play out of Ss Will Demps and Gibril Wilson. New York would do its secondary an enormous favor by getting consistent pressure on the passer. Offensively, the Giants need to open strong and attempt to take the crowd out of the game. The offensive line has struggled with communication and penalties on the road, and the Giants' can't afford to consistently set themselves back five or 10 yards and still hope to move the chains. If New York can keep the game close, Carolina has blown five fourth-quarter leads this season.
FAST FACTS: Giants: RB Tiki Barber has led the team in rushing in 76 consecutive games, the longest streak in NFL history. ... Of Brandon Jacobs' 115 career rushes, 50 have resulted in a touchdown or first down. Panthers: Have won all three previous meetings. ... Smith leads the NFL with 95.8 receiving yards per game.
--DE Michael Strahan (sprained foot) did the individual drills in practice last week but wasn't able to play against Dallas. This week he seemed to be less likely to get on the field in Carolina. "I'd like to say he's day-to-day," coach Tom Coughlin said, "but I don't think that's true."
--DE Osi Umenyiora, who missed five games due to a strained hip flexor, made it back last week against Dallas but didn't play well. He had a "zero" stat line, but coach Tom Coughlin is hoping he needed that game of true competition to work off the rust and that he will be more of a force against the Panthers.
--FS Will Demps, who has played poorly the last three to four weeks, is not in danger of losing his starting job. There are two reasons: He has played better, and he was a prized signing during the unrestricted free agent period (from Baltimore). Just as important, there isn't anyone close to his talents on the bench.
--RB Tiki Barber has gained 1,170 yards so far this season, and with four games remaining, he has a chance at another 1,500-yard season. His announced retirement earlier in the season, to take effect after the team's final game, has not proven to be a distraction, according to coach Tom Coughlin. "He's as good as he ever was and he is playing just as hard," Coughlin said. "Maybe the problem lies elsewhere."
--OLT Luke Petitgout, who was on the verge of a Pro Bowl season, went down with a broken leg, and that might be one of the reasons for RB Tiki Barber's three or four sub-standard games. His place has been filled by veteran Bob Whitfield, now just a journeyman. Whitfield had poor games against Chicago, Houston and Jacksonville, plus a foolish head-butting personal foul against Dallas.
--CB Ken Lucas remains extremely frustrated over his continuing hamstring problems. His season has basically been ruined by a series of nagging injuries. But Lucas said he's afraid to shut it down because the Panthers are 6-6. "If we were 9-3, maybe I would think about taking a couple of weeks off," he said. Look for Lucas to see limited action if any at all Sunday against the Giants.
--RB DeShaun Foster turned down interview requests Thursday, saying only, "I'm good," when asked how he felt.
--RB DeAngelo Williams is expected to return to a reserve role this week against the Giants.
--TE Kris Mangum returned to practice Thursday and is likely to play against the Giants.
--FS Mike Minter returned to practice Thursday and should play this week. Minter tweaked his knee last week against the Giants.
--FB Brad Hoover is one tough guy. The Panthers fullback is listed as probable after injuring his neck and shoulder area against Monday night. Hoover rarely misses a game, let alone a practice.
INSIDE THE CAMPS
When the season started, several teams in the NFC were favorites to represent the conference in the Super Bowl.
Among them were the Giants, Panthers and Eagles -- and at this moment they are all 6-6, variously handicapped by serious injuries that have cost them key players.
On Sunday, two of them -- the Giants and Panthers -- will meet head-to-head in Charlotte, N.C., and while it might not be exactly do or die, the loser will have a vastly more difficult time of reaching the postseason.
"Carolina is a lot like we are in terms of potential and close losses and mistakes that might have made a big difference," Giants coach Tom Coughlin said. "We have had injuries. So have the Panthers. But you have to learn to set that aside. This is the NFL, and injuries are a part of life."
He recounted the "prayer," if you will, that he said head coaches utter to whatever football gods exist when they leave training camp. "You wish that the team you have settled on, the first units, will stay that way all season," he explained. "You don't really expect that to happen, but it would be nice for a chance."
The Giants are in the second consecutive season of crippling injuries, their losses including both Pro Bowl defensive ends, Michael Strahan and Osi Umenyiora; strong-side linebacker LaVar Arrington; wide receiver Amani Toomer; offensive left tackle Luke Petitgout; cornerback Sam Madison and, for shorter durations of unavailability, players such as cornerback Corey Webster, weak-side linebacker Brandon Short and defensive end Justin Tuck.
If you find yourself thinking that there should be sufficient backups in the ranks, that is not entirely true. Those who are starters, it is noted by the coaches, won the jobs because they were better than those who serve as reserves.
"If a guy is good enough to start," the late general manager George Young used to say, "then you'll find a way for him to start. Otherwise, you just have to hope that he practices well and improves during the season."
Panthers quarterback Jake Delhomme sat out a second consecutive practice Thursday with a sprained thumb, increasing speculation that he won't play in what amounts to a huge game Sunday against the Giants.
For the record, Delhomme remains questionable on the injury report, but in all likelihood Chris Weinke will get his first start since 2002.
Delhomme said he's still having problems gripping the football, but he hopes to throw Friday.
"It's real sore," Delhomme said. "We're trying to get the swelling out. The swelling is starting to move, which is a good thing. But I think the big issue is strength, that's the big thing. How much strength do I have in it?"
Delhomme will continue to receive ice treatment in hopes of playing.
He has started 66 consecutive games for the Panthers.
"I'm optimistic it will get better," Delhomme said. "That's all I can give you right now. Other than that, we will just have to wait and see."
There was a report on ESPN that basically ruled out Delhomme for Sunday's game, but coach John Fox called that premature.
"They know something I don't then," Fox said. "We're taking it day-to-day. That's why you say questionable. It's not probable or definite, and it's not out."
Nonetheless, it's looking more and more likely Weinke will start unless Delhomme makes an amazing recovery in the next couple of days.
Fox also cleared up a report that Delhomme had a torn ligament, saying that the ligament in Delhomme's thumb is stretched but not torn off the bone. If it had been torn, Fox said Delhomme would have needed surgery.
Fox wouldn't rule out the possibility of Delhomme playing even if he were to miss the entire week of practice.
"If I had my druthers, I'd have them out there practicing every day," Fox said. "But we've had guys, experienced guys, that have been limited in practice and still played. He would be that type of guy if it came to that."