NFC South: Antonio Pierce
Pat Yasinskas: This may not be the answer Tampa Bay fans want to hear, but I don’t think Ronde Barber is a future Hall of Famer. Just my honest opinion. I think he’s been a very good player for a very long time. But I don’t think he’s ever been a dominant player. Also, I think Barber was fortunate to have Derrick Brooks, Warren Sapp and John Lynch around him for much of his career and they made all the players around them look better. I think Brooks and Sapp are automatic Hall of Famers and I think Lynch has a chance to join them.
Sam in Boston writes: Is there any chance the Falcons would try to sign Antonio Pierce? He's been on the market for a while so I'm sure he will accept a lower paying contract.
Pat Yasinskas: I’ve got no indication the Falcons are interested in Pierce. After drafting Sean Weatherspoon, I think they’re happy with what they have at linebacker.
Miles in Morganton, NC writes: Seeing as the Carolina Panthers haven't made a splash in the free agent market this year, do you see this as a sign of a rebuilding year for the Panthers?
Pat Yasinskas: I don’t see it as a rebuilding year for the Panthers. They really haven’t done much in free agency since they signed Ken Lucas and Mike Wahle to huge contracts. Their philosophy is to build through the draft and that’s what they’re doing. Yes, they let a bunch of players go in the offseason. But, aside from Julius Peppers, who was a story in himself, all those guys were old and were no longer very significant. I don’t think you can call a team that has Steve Smith, Jordan Gross, Thomas Davis, Jon Beason, Chris Gamble, DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart as its core a rebuilding team.
Graham in Macon, GA writes: Entering his third year in the league do you think Curtis Lofton could make the jump into Pro Bowl caliber player and become a household name like Beason has done in Carolina?
Pat Yasinskas: Yes, I do. Lofton became an every-down player last year and did a very nice job. The Atlanta coaches think he’s only starting to reach his full potential. Of course, it would be nice if the defensive line improves and allows him room to make more plays.
Ryan in Charlotte writes: In Carolina everybody mentions Matt Moore, Jimmy Clausen, and Tony Pike when talking quarterbacks but what about Hunter Cantwell? I was wondering if you had any information on how he is doing?
Pat Yasinskas: Cantwell is a guy the Panthers like. But, obviously, they drafted two quarterbacks so they don’t think Cantwell’s anything real special. Moore and Clausen will be the top two quarterbacks. Cantwell and Pike will compete for the No. 3 job. The fact the Panthers used a draft pick on Pike probably gives him the edge. Cantwell may end up on the practice squad or somewhere else.
Glenn in Baton Rouge, La., writes: I was wondering if you had some insight on why the Saints haven't been courting Antonio Pierce, or Brad Hoover? Surely both these guys are an upgrade.
Pat Yasinskas: Hang loose. Hoover and Pierce probably will be available after the draft. Or at least more guys like them will be. It’s just the nature of the business right now. Teams are focusing in on the draft and they’re not going to lock up aging players until they see what their remaining needs are. Heck, the Saints are doing this with one of their own guys, letting veteran safety Darren Sharper hang out as a free agent.
Travis in Johnson City, Tenn., writes: Have you heard if the Falcons have any serious interest in Jason Worilds? I really believe that this guy has what it takes to be an outstanding DE in the very near future. Everyone seems to say he is more of a 3-4 guy, but has the same measurables as Robert Mathis of the Colts. I really believe his natural abilities can carry him a long way.
PY: Haven’t heard anything strong on potential interest by Atlanta. But teams are pretty good about keeping their intentions quiet. From the scouting reports I’ve read on Worilds, he sounds somewhat like Lawrence Sidbury, whom the Falcons drafted last year. The Falcons still have high hopes for Sidbury. But I’m not ruling Worilds out because the Falcons certainly are looking at all possible ways to improve their pass rush.
Nick in Atlanta writes: Hey Pat, I was just wondering what prospect in the draft are the Falcons really considering? Is it Brandon Graham out of Michigan, Sean Weatherspoon out of Missouri or someone a little outside the box?
PY: I think both of those guys and several others are under serious consideration. I’d also throw in Penn State linebacker Navarro Bowman and defensive lineman Jared Odrick. I’m not saying that because I’m a Penn State fan. I’m basing it on something I heard that leads me to believe they like both of those players. Graham and Weatherspoon also make lots of sense. When you’re sitting at No. 19, you can’t really lock into one player. I know some people have thrown out scenarios where the Falcons could take a running back or a receiver. I’m not buying into that. Thomas Dimitroff drafts on a need basis and the biggest needs this team has are in the front seven of the defense.
Steve in Redlands Calif., writes: Hey Pat,Thanks for filling my Saints fix during the offseason! The other day you mentioned a "contingency plan" the Saints have if they don't re-sign Darren Sharper. What is that plan at this point?
PY: Well, it’s not like the Saints are coming out and saying what their plan is. But they’ve got some alternatives. Malcolm Jenkins was a first-round pick last year and spent his rookie season as a backup cornerback. He has the size and skills to play free safety and the Saints knew that when they drafted him. I think moving Jenkins to free safety is one alternative. Usama Young is also a guy who’s done well as a backup and on special teams and he could be another candidate. Of course, the return of Sharper remains a possibility.
Gary in Hickory, N.C., writes: As difficult as it is to find two stud defensive tackles, is there any possibility the Panthers switch to a 3-4? Their linebacker corps is very good with Thomas Davis, Jon Beason and Dan Connor. Given the Panthers limited draft picks, wouldn't it be easier to find another linebacker or two?
PY: I follow your logic. But that’s not going to happen. John Fox is a creature of habit. He runs a 4-3 defense.
Marc in Brea, Calif., writes: Yes I've heard the Bucs are cheap. Yes I have heard that all their money is being sucked up by ManU. Yes I have heard their going young. But, for the life of me I cannot figure out their kicking situation. To me a guy like Neil Rackers hits the FA market and they don't give him a whiff? Let's not forget the revolving door at kicker last year. Is Tampa's plan to really use one of the 11 picks this year in the kicking game? I hope not. I'm a believer in the new regime but there are some things that make me scratch my head. This is one of them.
PY: Tell you the truth, I like Connor Barth, whom the Bucs settled on as their kicker down the stretch last season. Yeah, he’s not a proven veteran like Rackers. But Barth kind of fits with the whole youth movement here and I don’t see any reason to go out and use a draft pick on another kicker.
|Rex Brown/Getty Images and Tim Heitman-US PRESSWIRE|
|Jake Delhomme's Panthers travel to the Meadowlands to take on Eli Manning's Giants Sunday night in a battle of 11-3 teams.|
Posted by ESPN.com's Matt Mosley and Pat Yasinskas
In what could end up being an NFC Championship Game preview, the New York Giants (11-3) and the Carolina Panthers (11-3) will square off Sunday night in the Meadowlands. At one point, the Giants appeared to have a firm grip on the No. 1 playoff seed, but they've now lost two straight games. The Panthers seem to be hitting their stride and a win would make them the favorite to represent the NFC in the Super Bowl.
After an intense negotiation over the debate format, NFC South blogger Pat Yasinskas and NFC East blogger Matt Mosley have agreed to discuss a few issues that may or may not affect Sunday's game. After you've finished reading, we encourage you to continue the debate in the comments section -- or in Pat's personal e-mail account.
Pat Yasinskas: Yes, Manning has the ring and the pedigree, but that's all he's really got on Delhomme. Did Manning carry the Giants to the Super Bowl last season? No, he played above average, but the reason he won was because he had a great team around him. Delhomme gets bashed (sometimes even by Carolina fans), but this guy is one of the most underappreciated quarterbacks ever. He doesn't have the ring, but he's been to a Super Bowl and two NFC Championship Games. He's not an exceptional talent in any way, but he's won throughout his career. You want proof of how much he means to the Panthers? Look at what happened last year when he was hurt. The Panthers went 7-9 and didn't make the playoffs. With him, they're on the verge of claiming the No. 1 seed. Manning's got the name and the measurable qualities, but Delhomme's got everything else. I'll take the guy with intangibles and the real Steve Smith any day.
Matt Mosley: Pat, I hate to see you minimize what Manning accomplished in last year's playoffs by saying he played "above average." He completed more than 60 percent of his passes during the four-game stretch, and that included a 21-of-40 performance when it was 9 degrees below zero in Green Bay. He threw six touchdowns and only one interception, and he played a major role in one of the greatest plays in Super Bowl history. Everyone in the Giants' locker room believes that Manning's the best quarterback in the NFC, and that's why the Giants don't have a sense of panic right now. Manning has faced more scrutiny in New York than Delhomme will ever experience in Charlotte -- and he's somehow come out on the other side. I'm a fan of Delhomme's work from way back, but he's completed less than 60 percent of his passes this season and he's thrown 14 touchdowns and 12 interceptions. You're suggesting that Delhomme has all the intangibles that can't be measured. Manning has a certain piece of jewelry that's fairly easy to measure.
Have the Panthers surpassed the Giants as the best rushing team in the league?
MM: It's remarkable how even these teams are in the running game. They both average a little over 30 attempts per game and they gain 4.8 yards per carry. The Giants still hold a slight edge in total rushing yards, but it's almost too close to call. The loss of Brandon Jacobs hurts the Giants far more than Plaxico Burress, although both players make a difference. Jacobs is a huge part of this team's identity. Derrick Ward and Ahmad Bradshaw are capable backups, but Jacobs sets the tone. The Panthers are a little bit more explosive in the running game. Both DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart can take it to the house, as evidenced by the fact that the Panthers lead the league with six carries of 40 yards or more. The Giants have only two. For some reason, Tom Coughlin doesn't trust Bradshaw enough to give him meaningful carries. That's the guy who needs to touch the ball more. He's a game-changing player who touches the ball about three or four times a game. Makes no sense to me.
PY: Carolina's running game is clicking at the right time and coach John Fox has the kind of offense he hasn't truly had since the 2003 Super Bowl season. Williams and Stewart are a great mix of speed and power, but they're not the real reason this running game has suddenly become the best in the NFL. The real reason is the offensive line. After Jordan Gross, Jeff Otah and R
yan Kalil each missed some time early in the season with injuries, Carolina has had its "real" line intact for most of the last four games and it's shown. The Panthers have been dominant up front and people are only just starting to realize how good this offensive line is. Gross made the Pro Bowl this year and Otah and Kalil might be only a year away.
We just mentioned how Carolina's offensive line is clicking. The Giants' offensive line was exposed by the Cowboys' pass rush. Who's got the better offensive line right now?
PY: Even though I grew up just down the road from Giants guard Chris Snee's hometown (Montrose, Pa.), I cover the NFC South, so I give the edge to the Panthers. Offensive lines are all about chemistry and continuity, and Carolina has that going for it right now. Fox and general manager Marty Hurney blew up last year's offensive line and they don't have a single regular starter in the same place as last year. That's because the Panthers wanted to get bigger and more physical up front. We've talked about how that's shown up in the running game, but it's also shown up in the passing game. The Panthers protect Delhomme well and Gross might be having the best year of any left tackle in the NFL. Sundays are easy for him because he spends the rest of the week trying to block Julius Peppers in practice.
MM: Pat, if the Giants make it to the Super Bowl, I think you just volunteered to do the definitive Snee feature story. You know, how the small-town kid grew up to marry the head coach's daughter. But you may be going a bit overboard on the Panthers' offensive line. I watched it get overwhelmed by the Vikings for five sacks early in the season and the Falcons sacked Delhomme three times in a 45-28 win last month. The Giants' offensive line is coming off a dreadful performance against the Cowboys, but the Mauler from Montrose, Snee, and center Shaun O'Hara earned their trips to the Pro Bowl. The Giants have given up a ton of sacks to the Cowboys. Against the rest of the league, they've been excellent. And David Diehl has had a solid year as well. Give me the Giants' offensive line, although the Panthers are coming on strong.
What will Giants defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo do to slow down Steve Smith and how will the Panthers counter? Teams routinely take Terrell Owens out of games. Why can't they do it against Smith?
MM: It takes skill to bring up T.O.'s name in a Panthers-Giants debate, but it's something we all learned in ESPN.com's blogger orientation. Spagnuolo will mix up the coverages, but I think Corey Webster will end up on Smith quite a bit with some help over the top. On several occasions in Week 15, I saw the Giants line up like they were going to cover T.O. with safety James Butler and then middle linebacker Antonio Pierce raced directly over to the receiver at the snap. It was a strange-looking double-team, but T.O. didn't accomplish much of anything in the game. Everything starts with stopping the run. On a couple of occasions last Sunday, the great Justin Tuck broke outside containment and allowed Tashard Choice to turn the corner. The Giants have to stay in their gaps or Stewart and Williams will find a lane. The Giants know how much Delhomme depends on Smith and I think they'll try to take the receiver out of the game. And honestly, I think they'll be successful. But that leaves other people open.
PY: Perhaps the best quality about Smith is he's so relentless. I won't even attempt to get into Smith's psychological makeup, but let's just say the guy's been told all his life he's too small and he constantly proves that wrong. You live your whole life like that and it becomes a habit, so you're not going to give up when you get double-teamed. The guy's a fierce competitor and he's going to find ways to get open no matter what. Plus, Delhomme relies on him -- too heavily at times. Delhomme will throw into coverage, but Smith will bail him out more times than not. Spagnuolo is a great defensive mind, but I don't envy him this week. He almost has to pick his poison. He can make it a priority to shut down Carolina's running game or he can make stopping Smith the first order of business. Neither one is easy.
Which team has the best chance of having success in the playoffs?
PY: The best advantage the Panthers have going for them right now is momentum. The Giants had a rough outing against Dallas and haven't looked as good as they did early in the year. Carolina is playing better than it has all year. Yes, the Giants went through a Super Bowl run last year and they know how to win. But so do the Panthers. They've been to a Super Bowl and an NFC Championship Game under Fox and they're hungry after two subpar seasons. The Panthers are peaking at the right time and this, essentially, is a playoff game because it could determine home-field advantage in the NFC. That's a huge plus for whoever gets it, but keep this in mind: Fox brought the Panthers into Giants Stadium for a playoff game after the 2005 season and shut out the Giants.
MM: To the players on these two teams, 2005 is ancient history. Last season, the Giants were awful in a Week 15 loss to the Redskins. They came back and clinched a playoff spot against the Bills and then used a narrow loss against the Patriots as the impetus for a Super Bowl run. You brought up the "intangible" word earlier in the proceedings. The Giants have more intangibles than the Panthers. The two running backs for Carolina have no clue what it's like to be in the playoffs. The Giants' roster is full of players who know exactly how it feels. If the Giants win this game, they'll go right back to being Super Bowl favorites. No one circles the wagons or designs a motivational T-shirt like Tom Coughlin. The Giants win this game and regain some of the momentum they lost over the past two weeks. You heard it here first. Pat, let's do this again. Maybe before the NFC Championship Game between the Cowboys and Falcons.