NFC South: Eli Manning

Sometime between now and the start of the regular season -- maybe even before training camp starts later this week -- I fully expect the Atlanta Falcons and quarterback Matt Ryan to agree to a long-term contract extension.

Ryan
Ryan
The Falcons want it to happen and Ryan wants it to happen. About the only question remaining is how much Ryan is worth.

The money may be astronomical, but I think this snapshot of the top-10 average quarterback salaries makes it pretty clear what Ryan’s new deal will look like:
Ryan, who has averaged $11.25 million per year on his rookie deal, is going to end up in the top five. There’s even a chance he could jump all the way to No. 1.

The top four guys all have Super Bowl rings. Ryan obviously doesn’t. But he’s only 28 and his side can make the argument he has championships in his future.
Ryan/SmithWesley Hitt/Getty ImagesFalcons coach Mike Smith and QB Matt Ryan are 0-3 in the playoffs together.

The question has become so prevalent that the answer has gotten lost in the shuffle.

“When will the Atlanta Falcons win a playoff game?’’ is the question that’s been building since soon after coach Mike Smith and quarterback Matt Ryan arrived in town.

There are all sorts of theories floating out there on why Smith, Ryan and the Falcons keep making early exits in January, but I don’t buy them.

I’ve got the answer right here: The Falcons will win a playoff game when they should win a playoff game.

That’s Sunday against the Seattle Seahawks in the Georgia Dome.

The logic is simple: It’s the first time in the Smith-Ryan era you can unequivocally say the Falcons should win in the postseason.

Everybody likes to talk about how this Atlanta team is different from previous ones.

“We’re a much more mature team because of our experiences,’’ Smith said this week. “I think you learn from your previous experiences in the playoffs.’’

There’s some truth in saying this team is different, but I don’t think that’s going to be the difference Sunday.

What’s different now compared to the 2008, 2010 and 2011 postseasons -- which all ended in early exits for the Falcons -- is the circumstances. Think about it for a second.

Did anybody really expect the Falcons to go up to MetLife Stadium last January and beat the New York Giants? I sure didn’t. I mean, I thought Atlanta at least had a chance, but I think the realistic expectation was for the Falcons to lose by a score of something like 24-17. They lost 24-2 on a day when their offense forgot to show up, and that only made the two previous playoff losses seem worse than they were.

And we're going to go out of order here, so bear with me, but think about those other two losses for a second.

Did anybody really expect the Falcons to go to Arizona and knock off the Cardinals at the end of the 2008 season, when Ryan was just a rookie? I’m not saying the word “dynasty’’ should ever be used in the same sentence as the Arizona Cardinals, but that Arizona team had Kurt Warner and was playing at home. Just like last year’s Giants, those Cardinals knocked off the Falcons and strolled to the Super Bowl.

Speaking of Super Bowl teams, think for a second about the other team the Falcons lost to in their past three playoff tries.

Yep, that was the Green Bay Packers back in a 2010 season during which Atlanta went 13-3 and had the No. 1 seed in the NFC. But, even then, you couldn’t look at things objectively and say Atlanta was the overwhelming favorite. The Packers had playoff mystique and they had Aaron Rodgers, and you knew Green Bay had a chance to come into the Georgia Dome and win.

Like last year’s Giants, those Packers thumped the Falcons and went on to win the Super Bowl.

[+] EnlargeRussell Wilson
Joe Nicholson/USA TODAY SportsRookie Russell Wilson will be leading his team into a hostile playoff environment for the second straight week.
But let’s not go comparing the current Seahawks to the 2010 Packers, because they’re not. Yes, Seattle is red-hot after winning its final five games of the regular season and knocking off the Washington Redskins in its playoff opener last week. Yes, the Seahawks have a very good defense and an excellent running back in Marshawn Lynch.

But the Seahawks are not the Packers. They’re not the Giants or the Cardinals. They don’t have Rodgers, Eli Manning or Warner.

They have Russell Wilson.

Don’t get me wrong, Wilson has had a marvelous season, and he’s going to have a very long and prosperous career. But he’s a rookie coming into a noisy and hostile dome.

The Seahawks are what the Falcons were back on that day they went into Arizona -- a team with a rookie quarterback, happy just to be in the playoffs, making a cross-country trip.

Wilson won’t be the best quarterback in Atlanta on Sunday. That honor belongs to Ryan, who has continued to mature and has produced the best statistical season of his career.

In his three previous playoff games, Ryan wasn’t the best quarterback on the field. This time he is, at least on paper.

If Ryan goes out and plays the way he should (and Smith doesn’t try to slow down his offense by force-feeding the ball to aging running back Michael Turner), Ryan will be the best quarterback on the field in reality as well. Once he wins a playoff game, Ryan finally will be knighted with that “elite’’ title everyone likes to toss around, and the Falcons no longer will have to hear about their postseason woes.

All Ryan has to do is play his game and get the ball to Roddy White, Julio Jones and Tony Gonzalez. All the Falcons -- who now have a defense with swagger thanks to cornerback Asante Samuel and linebacker Sean Weatherspoon -- have to do is play their game.

Just go out and be the best team on the field.

If that happens, the Falcons will win -- because, for the first time in the postseason in this era, they should win.

Superlatives on the Falcons

December, 17, 2012
12/17/12
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With some help from ESPN Stats & Information and the Atlanta Falcons' media relations department, let’s take a look at some statistical superlatives from Atlanta’s 34-0 victory against the New York Giants on Sunday.
  • Quarterback Matt Ryan had no problem handling the Giants’ blitz. When New York sent five or more pass rushers, Ryan completed six of seven passes and averaged 15.1 yards per attempt.
  • Ryan broke two of his own franchise records. He now has a team-best 4,202 passing yards on the season, breaking the record (4,177 yards he set last year). Ryan also has 369 completions on the season. He set the previous record with 357 in 2010.
  • Ryan completed 23 of 28 passes (82.1 percent) for 270 yards with three touchdowns and a 142.6 passer rating. Ryan’s completion percentage was the second-best total of his career. He completed 85.7 percent of his passes in a 2010 game against Green Bay.
  • Ryan now has posted a passer rating of 100 or better 32 times in his career. The Falcons are 31-1 in those games.
  • Not counting kneel-downs, the Falcons rushed 35 times for 133 yards. Seventy-four of those yards came after contact.
  • The shutout was Atlanta’s first since Nov. 2, 2009 at Oakland and its first in the Georgia Dome since Oct. 20, 2002 against Carolina.
  • The Falcons handed Eli Manning the first regular-season shutout of his career. It also was the first time the Giants have been shut out in the regular season since 1996.
  • Since coach Mike Smith’s arrival in 2008, the Falcons are 20-3 following a loss. The Falcons have won 10 straight games coming off a loss.
  • Cornerback Asante Samuel intercepted Manning in the first quarter. It was Samuel’s 48th career interception, which ranks No. 4 among active players.
  • Michael Turner moved into second place on the team’s all-time rushing list. Turner has 6,022 yards since joining the Falcons in 2008. Gerald Riggs is the franchise leader with 6,630 yards.
  • Julio Jones topped the 1,000-yard receiving mark. Jones and Roddy White became the first pair of Atlanta receivers to reach 1,000 yards in the same season since Terance Mathis and Tony Martin did it in 1998. Jones and White have combined for 148 receptions, 2,227 yards and 14 touchdowns this season.
  • The Falcons have not allowed a passing touchdown in their last three home games.
  • Safety Thomas DeCoud recorded his sixth interception of the season. He and William Moore are the NFL’s only safety tandem in which both players have at least four interceptions.
Eli ManningKevin C. Cox/Getty ImagesEli Manning was intercepted twice and sacked once as the Giants were shut out for the first time in the regular season since 1996.
ATLANTA -- This is what a 12-2 team is supposed to look like.

It goes out and dominates every facet of the game against the defending Super Bowl champions. It plays like a machine and erases the ghosts of last season’s playoffs and last week’s ugly loss to Carolina Panthers.

That’s precisely what the Atlanta Falcons did in Sunday’s 34-0 victory over the New York Giants at the Georgia Dome.

“I think this is the best game we’ve put together all season,’’ cornerback Asante Samuel said.

Samuel generally isn’t prone to understatements, but he might have been selling the Falcons short on this one. If the Falcons didn’t play a perfect game Sunday, they at least bordered on it.

They recorded the first regular-season shutout ever in a game that Eli Manning started. They recorded the first regular-season shutout against the Giants since December 1996.

Even the critics, including media members and opposing players, who have been quick to point out the Falcons often have been just getting by against the league’s easiest schedule, have to be impressed by this one. At least for the moment, you can make a case the Falcons are as good as their record.

But don’t let Samuel catch you giving the Falcons their due.

“We love the haters,’’ Samuel said. “The haters keep us going. Keep up the hate.’’

But the season-long theme about a lack of respect wasn’t the lone motivating factor. Last week’s 30-20 loss to Carolina might have played just as big a role.

“Embarrassment,’’ veteran tight end Tony Gonzalez said when asked why the Falcons’ focus was so much better this week. “It was better than it’s been because it had to be.’’

Said head coach Mike Smith, “Our focus this week was heightened, I will say that.’’

To a man, the Falcons talked about how well they practiced and prepared for the Giants, who beat them, 24-2, in last season’s playoffs.

“This week, what we figured out was if you put in the work, you’re going to get the result you want,’’ linebacker Sean Weatherspoon said. “We know now we need to play playoff ball the rest of the way.’’

For perhaps the first time all season, the Falcons were at the absolute top of their game in every area.

The special teams kept Giants return man David Wilson from doing any damage. The offense had balance and rhythm throughout the game. The maligned running game produced 129 yards. Quarterback Matt Ryan was almost perfect and might have edged his way back into the Most Valuable Player conversation. He completed 23 of 38 passes for 270 yards and three touchdowns. Julio Jones caught two touchdown passes and moved past the 1,000-yard receiving mark for the season. The offensive line protected Ryan (one sack) very well against a Giants front four that Smith called the best in the NFL.

But, on a day where every unit shined, the defense might have been the brightest spot.

The Falcons recorded their first shutout since the 2009 season and their first at home since 2002, and they did it against a quarterback that has won two Super Bowls. They set the tone early, as Samuel intercepted Manning on the second play of the game to set up a quick Atlanta touchdown.

Safety Thomas DeCoud also intercepted Manning early in the second quarter to set up a field goal that put the Falcons ahead 17-0. But the interceptions weren’t even the biggest story of the day for the Atlanta defense.

Three times -- twice in the second quarter and once in the third quarter -- the Giants went for it on fourth down instead of settling for a field goal.

“I thought that was a little disrespectful, like, 'We’re better than you,'’’ Weatherspoon said. “But we got it done between the lines.’’

All three times, the Falcons stopped the Giants.

“Gigantic,’’ Smith said. “Absolutely gigantic. Those three fourth-down stops were like turnovers.’’

Said Weatherspoon, “They were turnovers. That’s demoralizing for a team.’’

The loss certainly didn’t help the Giants in their quest to win the NFC East and earn a playoff berth. But the victory might have done wonders for the Falcons' morale.

It also might have opened some eyes that the Falcons truly are a good team.

“I understand why the media doesn’t have the stomach to jump on the bandwagon,’’ Gonzalez said. “They are going to say what they want to say until we go out and win a playoff game. That’s just the reality.’’

But maybe how other people perceive the Falcons shouldn’t really matter. Maybe all that matters is how the Falcons perceive themselves and how they perform when it matters most.

“They don’t remember what you do in September and October,’’ Smith said. “It’s all about December and January. We’ve been saying we haven’t played our best. We haven’t played our best game, and when we watch the [replay] tomorrow, we’ll probably have that same opinion.’’

If Smith and the Falcons can look at the film of this one and find any flaws, that’s a good thing. It would mean that, even after a fantastic performance, there still is room for improvement.

“It was a statement game for this week,’’ Weatherspoon said. “But there’s a lot more to be done.’’

If the Falcons are going to win in the postseason for the first time in the Smith-Ryan era, they’ll need to play like they did against the Giants. If they do that, anything is possible.

“It’s time,’’ Gonzalez said. “It’s that time of year where you have start jelling as a football team. “We’re a good team. We have a lot of talent, but it hasn’t been clicking all the time and I don’t know why. But this shows that, when we focus, we’re very tough to beat.’’

 video

Rapid Reaction: Falcons 34, Giants 0

December, 16, 2012
12/16/12
3:48
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ATLANTA -- Thoughts on the Atlanta Falcons34-0 victory against the New York Giants on Sunday at the Georgia Dome:

What it means: This was much more significant than a run-of-the-mill December victory for a team that already has clinched the NFC South title and a spot in the playoffs. This was a statement game for the 12-2 Falcons. A week after playing a horrible game against Carolina, they bounced back with their best outing of the season. They also did it against the team that bounced them from the playoffs last season, and they did it in a very convincing manner.

What I liked: Everything. Critics have ripped the Falcons for not putting together a complete game and, oftentimes, playing just well enough to win. Well, this one was different. The Falcons were pretty much flawless. They ran and passed the ball well on offense. The defense intercepted Eli Manning twice early in the game and came through with some big stops.

Stat of the day: The shutout marked the first time the Giants have been held scoreless in a regular-season game with Manning as their quarterback.

Busting a myth: There are a lot of people out there who say Atlanta quarterback Matt Ryan can’t throw the deep ball. I always have disputed that claim. And Ryan gave me some more evidence to work with. If you haven’t seen his 40-yard touchdown pass to Julio Jones, please go watch the replay. It should be on all of the highlight shows.

Super omen? Speaking of Jones, he went for more than 1,000 receiving yards for the season on Sunday. Teammate Roddy White already was past the 1,000-yard mark. They are the first Atlanta duo to post 1,000 receiving yards in the same season since Terance Mathis and Tony Martin in the 1998 season. In case you don't remember, that's the season the Falcons made it to the Super Bowl for the only time in franchise history.

Pro Bowl bound? Very quietly, Atlanta free safety Thomas DeCoud has emerged as a force. He intercepted Manning in the first half. That gives DeCoud six interceptions on the season. The fifth-year player should get strong consideration for a spot on the NFC Pro Bowl team.

What’s next: The Falcons face a bit of a short week. They play the Detroit Lions at Ford Field on Saturday night.

Halftime thoughts: Falcons-Giants

December, 16, 2012
12/16/12
2:26
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ATLANTA -- I don’t know that it will last, but the Atlanta Falcons finally are looking like the team they’re supposed to be.

At halftime, they have a 17-0 lead on the New York Giants. The score doesn’t even illustrate how well the Falcons have played.

They’ve been criticized all season for not being able to put together a complete game. Well, they’re doing it against the Giants.

They’ve had success with the run and the pass on offense. Defensively, they’ve picked off Eli Manning twice and they stopped a New York drive near the end of the first half.

Atlanta’s been dominant so far. We’ll see if it continues. I’ll be back with Rapid Reaction soon after the game ends.

NFC East blogger Dan Graziano talks with NFC South blogger Pat Yasinskas about this weekend's game between the Giants and Falcons.

Wrap-up: Broncos 31, Buccaneers 23

December, 2, 2012
12/02/12
7:20
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Thoughts on the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' 31-23 loss to the Denver Broncos on Sunday:

What it means: For the second straight week, the Bucs got to the corner and couldn’t quite turn it. There’s no question the Bucs are on the right path, but this was another game in which they showed they’re not ready to beat a good team. But they’re close. They lost by a point to Atlanta last week, and they controlled the Denver game for the first half before the Broncos took control by scoring 21 points in the third quarter. At 6-6, the Bucs remain in the playoff picture for this season. But the postseason might be a more realistic goal for next season. Somewhere along the way, the Bucs have to figure out how to beat good teams if they truly want to take the next step.

What I liked: The way Tampa Bay compensated for its problems in the secondary in the first half. The Bucs held Peyton Manning to one first-half touchdown pass, and that was to defensive tackle Mitch Unrein. They were able to keep their young cornerbacks from getting exploited, and that was largely because Tampa Bay’s offense did such a nice job of controlling the ball and keeping Manning off the field.

What I didn’t like: The offense went completely cold in the third quarter. That gave Manning an opportunity to pick on rookie cornerback Leonard Johnson, and the complexion of the game changed rapidly.

What else I didn't like: The Bucs put virtually no pressure on Manning. They are without defensive end Adrian Clayborn, who is out for the season with an injury. But ends Michael Bennett and Da'Quan Bowers and tackle Gerald McCoy can generate a pass rush. They didn't do it against the Broncos, and that's why Manning hung the secondary out to dry.

Injury watch: Kickoff returner/reserve cornerback LeQuan Lewis went down with a knee injury, which didn't look good, late in the fourth quarter. If Lewis misses any time, the Bucs might turn to rookie running back Michael Smith as their kick returner.

It happened again: Remember early in the season when the Bucs still were going hard against the New York Giants with Eli Manning lined up in the victory formation? The Bucs did the same thing to his brother. Peyton Manning took a knee twice at the end of the game, and the Bucs came after him. Manning didn't get touched, but his offensive lineman didn't react kindly, and there was some pushing and shoving with Tampa Bay defenders. Tampa Bay coach Greg Schiano talked to Manning after the game, but it wasn't clear whether the quarterback had any problem with Tampa Bay's tactics. I'm sure Manning will be asked about it in his postgame interview.

What’s next: The Bucs host the Philadelphia Eagles next Sunday.
Tampa Bay coach Greg Schiano has drawn the wrath of other coaches and players from other teams in his first NFL season.

New York Giants coach Tom Coughlin and some of his players were critical of Schiano for having his defense go all -ut as quarterback Eli Manning was taking a knee at the end of the game. The tactic, which Schiano used at Rutgers and has said he has no regrets about doing in the NFL, also has drawn harsh words from elsewhere in the league.

Now, it’s not just opponents criticizing Schiano’s approach. Check out this Inside The NFL interview with two replacement officials on Showtime.

Most of it focuses on the controversial call at the end of the game between Green Bay and San Diego. But there’s one moment (right about the 5:45 mark) where replacement official Jim Core is asked who was the toughest coach he had to work with.

With very little hesitation, Core, a former college official, singled out Schiano.

“He’s college,’’ Core said. “The rest of them acted at a different level. You could just tell working with them, they were at a different level than what I felt like he was.’’
I’m sensing there are fair amount of people who are skeptical of Matt Ryan’s fast start.

That’s somewhat understandable because, in the past, Ryan has had times when he’s been very good and other times when he hasn’t.

Ryan
Ryan
It’s only four games into the season, but let’s put what Ryan’s done so far into some sort of perspective.

Since 2008, Ryan is one of 11 starting quarterbacks to open a season 4-0. According to ESPN Stats & Information, Ryan’s numbers put him in some very elite territory.

Ryan has posted an 80.0 Total QBR. The only quarterbacks to start 4-0 with a better Total QBR are Eli Manning (91.6) in 2009 and 87.3 in 2008, Aaron Rodgers (87.3) in 2011 and Peyton Manning (84.4) in 2009.

Of the 11 quarterbacks to start 4-0 since 2008, only three have thrown for more than 10 touchdowns. Ryan is one of them, with 11.

There’s been a growing buzz about Ryan being an MVP candidate and maybe even the Falcons winning the Super Bowl. I think we’ve got to wait to see how the Falcons perform in the postseason. But I think it’s fair to mention him as an MVP candidate. Look at the guys I listed above. They’ve come up in past MVP conversations and Ryan is playing as well as they were.

Around the NFC South

September, 28, 2012
9/28/12
11:56
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Let's take a run through the headlines from around the division:

ATLANTA FALCONS

Offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter said the fact quarterback Matt Ryan has been sacked only four times in three games is “pretty good.’’ But Koetter would like to see the average drop to one sack (or less) per game. Still the offensive line is playing much better than a year ago, when Ryan was sacked 26 times and took a lot of other hits.

With backup tight end Michael Palmer out with an injury, look for Tommy Gallarda to get a lot of playing time Sunday against Carolina. The Falcons don’t like to put all the blocking responsibilities on veteran starter Tony Gonzalez, and they also like to use some two-tight-end sets.

CAROLINA PANTHERS

Rookie cornerback Josh Norman said he has his confidence back after getting picked on by Eli Manning and the New York Giants. He better have his confidence back, because he’s going to have to deal with Ryan, Roddy White and Julio Jones on Sunday.

Here’s a stat that didn’t get very much attention because it was overshadowed by how badly the Panthers lost to the Giants. But linebacker James Anderson set a team regular-season record with 20 tackles in that game.

NEW ORLEANS SAINTS

Mike Triplett writes about how the Saints have fared with the screen pass. Like just about every other part of the offense, it hasn’t been as good as in the past.

The New Orleans offensive line, which has allowed Drew Brees to be pressured more than in recent years, faces a tough challenge Sunday when it faces a Green Bay defense that is tied for second in the league with 12 sacks.

TAMPA BAY BUCCANEERS

Quarterback Josh Freeman said there’s a learning curve involved with a new offensive system and the offense will improve. It needs to. This offense has a lot of talent, but has yet to produce with any sort of consistency.

For those calling for Freeman to run more often, I doubt that’s going to happen. Coach Greg Schiano said he doesn’t like his quarterback going out of the pocket and exposing himself to injury. Schiano said, when Freeman does run, he wants him sliding to avoid taking big hits.

How the Panthers lost to the Giants

September, 21, 2012
9/21/12
10:33
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CHARLOTTE, N.C. – With some help from ESPN Stats & Information, let’s take a look at how the Carolina Panthers lost, 36-7, to the New York Giants at Bank of America Stadium on Thursday night.


  • Carolina quarterback Cam Newton didn’t handle the Giants’ blitz very well. When facing five or more pass-rushers, Newton was 5 of 10 for 83 yards with two interceptions. Newton entered the game second in the league with a 72.7 completion percentage against the blitz. New York’s Eli Manning, meanwhile, was much more efficient against the blitz. He completed 7 of 8 passes for 74 yards and a touchdown when facing five or more pass-rushers.
  • Carolina’s defense, which had a horrible game, was particularly bad in the secondary. Rookie cornerback Josh Norman and safety Haruki Nakamura struggled all night -- despite the Giants being without starting receiver Hakeem Nicks. Ramses Barden stepped in and had the game of his life, catching nine passes to match his reception total for the entire 2011 season. Barden caught all seven of his targets between the numbers for 114 yards.
  • Manning ate up Carolina’s secondary downfield. On passes that traveled 10 yards or more, Manning was 7 of 9 for 135 yards and a touchdown. He’s averaging 15.4 yards per attempt on throws of that distance, which ranks him second in the NFL behind Robert Griffin III.
  • Barden wasn’t the only New York replacement to burn Carolina’s defense. Andre Brown stepped in for the injured Ahmad Bradshaw and rushed for 113 yards and two touchdowns on 20 carries. Carolina’s tackling was particularly bad against Brown and the running game. Brown finished with 71 yards after initial contact; 63 of those yards came in the first half as the Giants jumped out to a 20-0 lead.

Defense still holding Panthers back

September, 21, 2012
9/21/12
1:22
AM ET
Andre BrownAP Photo/Bob LeveroneAndre Brown and the Giants exposed Haruki Nakamura (43), Josh Norman -- and Carolina's whole D.


CHARLOTTE, N.C. – The Carolina Panthers got their best defensive player back from injury, patched the middle of their defensive line, picked up the best linebacker in the draft and found an alleged “steal’’ at cornerback in the fifth round.

Put all that together with talent like defensive end Charles Johnson' and cornerback Chris Gamble', and it was supposed to add up to a team that’s a playoff contender.

It might be time to rethink that.

After watching Carolina’s defense in a 36-7 loss to the New York Giants at Bank of America Stadium on Thursday night, I think the Panthers look a lot more like the 6-10 team they were a year ago.

Their defense looked worse than it did last season. It was horrible.

“We missed tackles," Carolina coach Ron Rivera said. “We were soft in coverage. You can’t do that against a good football team."

No doubt the defending Super Bowl champions are a good team. But the fact is the Panthers can’t play this kind of defense and have any chance of going to the postseason.

The Giants weren’t even a fully loaded team. Starting receiver Hakeem Nicks, starting running back Ahmad Bradshaw and starting tackle David Diehl missed the game due to injuries.

Like it mattered.

Andre Brown stepped in for Bradshaw and ran for 113 yards and two touchdowns on 20 carries. Ramses Barden stepped into Nicks’ spot and produced nine catches for 138 yards. Raise your hand if you had heard of Brown or Barden before Thursday night.

Yeah, it helped that they were playing with quarterback Eli Manning. But it was Carolina’s defense that turned Brown and Barden into superstars.

The Giants scored on their first four drives and had a 20-0 lead by halftime and the game was pretty much over. Heck, it might have been over by the time the Giants built a 10-0 lead with 3:46 left in the first quarter.

“You get smacked in the face, you have to turn around and throw a punch," Rivera said. “Sometimes, we don’t know how."

That’s the really disappointing part -- that the Panthers don’t know how to throw a punch. The whole offseason was supposed to be about the defense getting better.

Middle linebacker Jon Beason, the leader of the defense, was coming back from missing most of last season with an injury. Same for defensive tackle Ron Edwards. The Panthers went out and drafted linebacker Luke Kuechly in the first round and they’re starting fifth-round pick Josh Norman at cornerback. They also brought in free-agent safety Haruki Nakamura and defensive tackle Dwan Edwards.

That was supposed to fix everything. Instead, it looks like the Panthers fixed nothing.

“One thing we’re trying to do is get out of this rut," Rivera said. “We’re trying to get away from how things used to be and trying to create a vibe. We’d love to have that type of vibe a team like the Giants have."

The only vibe coming out of this game was a bad one.

“If I was a fan of the Carolina Panthers, I would be holding my head down in shame at the product that was out there," quarterback Cam Newton said.

[+] EnlargeCam Newton
Streeter Lecka/Getty Images"If I was a fan of the Carolina Panthers, I would be holding my head down in shame at the product that was out there," Cam Newton said.
Newton (16-of-30 for 242 yards and three interceptions) and the offense were far from perfect, but they weren’t the root of all evil. The offense never had a chance because the defense was so bad from the very start.

“We never stopped the bleeding on defense," Carolina cornerback Captain Munnerlyn said. “They came out and did everything they wanted. Nobody really made a play tonight."

Maybe the Panthers can turn it around. Maybe the defense can bounce back and Carolina can contend for a playoff berth for the first time since 2008.

But it’s not looking really promising right now. It’s looking as though the Panthers should have done a lot more to patch up their defense in the offseason. Maybe Ron Edwards really is just a guy. Maybe there was a reason why Buffalo released Dwan Edwards at the start of the preseason.

Maybe the Panthers, who like to preach about building through the draft, should have drafted a good interior defensive lineman sometime in the past few years. Heck, the last good defensive tackle they drafted was Kris Jenkins in 2001. George Seifert was calling the shots then, so you have to assume the Panthers fell into that one.

Kuechly overran several plays against the Giants, just as he did in the first two games. Norman got lit up by New York’s receivers.

“I thought Josh Norman was a little soft, and that’s uncharacteristic of him," Rivera said.

Makes you wonder if starting a fifth-round pick at cornerback right off the bat really is a good idea. Then there’s Nakamura. The Panthers went out and signed him simply because he was Ed Reed’s backup in Baltimore.

There was a reason why Nakamura was a backup in Baltimore. Go look at the film from Thursday night. Watch him standing still 30 yards off the line of scrimmage and not giving the cornerbacks any help. Watch the angles he took on a couple of tackle attempts that didn’t even come close to being successful. I'm having a hard time believing that Sherrod Martin, who was benched in favor of Nakamura, is any worse.

“What this was was a lesson that you get from your big brother," Rivera said. “They came in and slapped you around and dragged you through the gravel a little bit."

Yep, even after all that offseason work, Carolina’s defense is still the little brother. If that defense doesn’t somehow grow up soon, it’s going to be another long season in Carolina.

By the numbers: Giants/Panthers

September, 20, 2012
9/20/12
1:22
PM ET
CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- As we get ready for Thursday night’s game between the Panthers and Giants, let’s turn to ESPN Stats & Information for some numbers on Carolina and New York.
  • Eli Manning threw for 510 yards in Sunday’s victory against Tampa Bay. The last Giants quarterback to throw for 500 yards in a game was Phil Simms with 513 in 1985. Simms followed that up with 196 passing yards in his next game.
  • The Giants will be without injured receiver Hakeem Nicks and running back Ahmad Bradshaw. So far this season Nicks and Bradshaw have accounted for 39.6 percent of the team’s total yards from scrimmage. Last season, Nicks and Bradshaw accounted for 34.4 percent of the Giants’ total yards from scrimmage.
  • There have been 20 quarterbacks taken with the No. 1 overall pick in the draft (since 1967). Carolina’s Cam Newton will become just the third to face off against the defending Super Bowl champion in each of his first two seasons. Newton and the Panthers lost to Green Bay last year. The only other two No. 1 overall draft picks to face Super Bowl champions in each of their first two seasons were Sam Bradford and Terry Bradshaw (Bradshaw didn’t start, but came off the bench in a 1970 game against Kansas City). Both went 0-2.

Around the NFC South

September, 20, 2012
9/20/12
10:47
AM ET
CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Time for a look at the headlines from around the division.

TAMPA BAY BUCCANEERS

Defensive coordinator Bill Sheridan said the secondary doesn’t deserve all the blame for Eli Manning throwing for 510 yards Sunday. He said the front seven of the defense could have given the secondary a lot more help.

It appears as if the Bucs are going to stick with Demar Dotson as their starting right tackle. Jeremy Trueblood had his chance under the new regime and didn’t make the most of it.

NEW ORLEANS SAINTS

Kansas City quarterback Matt Cassel said he’s looking forward to the atmosphere in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome. I’m not sure he’ll be so fascinated on Sunday when he’s trying to get his team lined up before the play clock expires.

Although the numbers still are prolific, Nakia Hogan points out the New Orleans passing game hasn’t been as sharp as in the past. It’s been held back by dropped passes, penalties and missed assignments.

CAROLINA PANTHERS

The Panthers want to upgrade Bank of America Stadium with new video boards and escalators. It’s not clear if the team will seek public funding. The stadium, which opened in 1996, was built without any taxpayer money.

In his third season, Brandon LaFell has emerged as a solid No. 2 receiver. He might be the best complement to Steve Smith the Panthers have had since Muhsin Muhammad.

ATLANTA FALCONS

Cornerback Christopher Owens is going through the league’s concussion protocol. I’d guess it’s very unlikely he’ll be ready to play Sunday at San Diego. That means either Dominique Franks or Robert McClain likely will have to take over as the nickel back.

Although he’s off to a slow start and was charged with DUI on Tuesday, Mark Bradley writes that it’s not time for the Falcons to unload Michael Turner. His point is that the Falcons still need a running game and that’s very true. Turner might not be what he was in the past, but the Falcons need him (and Jacquizz Rodgers) to supply a bit of a running game to keep defenses honest against Atlanta’s passing game.

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