NFC South: Martin Hurney
|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.