Panthers' defense dominates Giants

EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. -- The last time the New York Giants lined up for a playoff game at Giants Stadium -- five years ago -- they destroyed the Minnesota Vikings 41-0 in the NFC championship game.

On Sunday, they were on the receiving end of a similarly numbing defensive effort. The Carolina Panthers completely dominated the Giants 23-0 in an NFC wild-card game.

The common denominator?

John Fox.

He was the Giants' defensive coordinator when they went to Super Bowl XXXV to crown their 2000 season. He was the Panthers' head coach that reduced one of the NFL's most prolific offenses this season (422 points, an average of 26 per game) to mere mush.

"He was the reason we shut out Minnesota the year we went to the Super Bowl, so I know what he's capable of," Giants running back Tiki Barber said after the game. "They kept a lot of guys in the box, but they attacked our schemes and our tendencies.

"In some ways, we were out-coached. That's coach Fox."

"Tiki had an MVP season," Fox said. "I saw him after the game and told him he had a great year and not to let this taint it."

The Panthers ran 71 plays to the Giants' 35. They gained 335 yards to the Giants' 132. Their time of possession edge was a staggering 42:45 to 17:15. But perhaps the most telling number in a game of telling numbers was this: The contest took only 2 hours and 39 minutes -- about a half of the national championship Rose Bowl game.

Carolina's defensive dominance sent folks scrambling to the history books to place the victory in context.

It was the first time an NFL home team was shut out in a playoff game in more than a quarter-century; the Los Angeles Rams beat the Tampa Bay Buccaneers 9-0 in the 1979 NFC championship game. The Giants hadn't been shut out in a home playoff game since 1943, when the Redskins prevailed 28-0 at the Polo Grounds.

"It was, as they say in football, a good old-fashioned ass-kicking," observed Archie Manning, father of Giants quarterback Eli Manning.

Approaching the game, Fox came to this logical conclusion: He would commit his lavish resources to stopping Barber -- whose 2,390 total yards were the second-highest total in league history -- and take his chances with Manning, a second-year player in his first playoff game who still suffers from inconsistencies and mechanical difficulties.

"We didn't have any balance," bemoaned Giants coach Tom Coughlin. "We didn't make any first downs. We had no rhythm going, offensively. We just didn't accomplish a whole lot."

By crowding the line of scrimmage with his superior front seven, plus safeties Marlon McCree and Mike Minter, Fox and his Panthers' defense suffocated Barber. He carried the ball 13 times and gained only 41 yards, a season-low. Barber added only three catches for an additional 28 yards.

Manning, meanwhile, felt the pressure. He completed only 10 of 18 passes for 113 yards. He threw three interceptions and was sacked four times. Plaxico Burress, his leading receiver during the regular season, did not catch a single pass.

"Elijah didn't play his greatest game, obviously," Barber said. "You can't discount experience."

"We made them one-dimensional," explained Panthers defensive tackle Brentson Buckner. "Our foremost thought was stopping Tiki. We eliminated the run and forced him into situations where we knew they had to pass."

The Giants' Michael Strahan (two sacks) and Osi Umenyiora (one sack) might be the league's best pass-rushing tandem, but Julius Peppers and Mike Rucker might be the most complete.

"It seemed everything we did, they had an answer," said Burress. "It's kind of embarrassing to play like that."

"They had an OK defense," acknowledged Giants tight end Jeremy Shockey. "There definitely was yards to be made out there, but ... you saw the game. Pretty surprising."

The Panthers, on balance, are not a dangerous offensive team. Wide receiver Steve Smith led the NFL in receiving yardage, but the running game is modest if not mediocre. On Sunday, the Giants' JV linebackers made DeShaun Foster look like Shaun Alexander. He carried 27 times for 151 yards. Nick Goings added 12 carries for 63 yards. Carolina ran the ball 45 times for 223 yards -- a nice, round 5.0 yards per carry.

Smith scored the game's only two touchdowns, the first on a 22-yard second-quarter catch, the second on a 12-yard reverse midway through the third quarter that made the score an insurmountable 17-0.

Heading into the game, it seemed the Giants' only advantage was playing at home. They won eight of nine games at the Meadowlands in the regular season, but the Panthers were 6-2 on the road, the NFC's best record.

In the end, there wasn't much mystery or intrigue here. The Panthers played like a team that was in the Super Bowl two seasons ago, while the Giants looked like a team that hadn't been to the postseason since 2002.

The Panthers are playing with some momentum now, and they carry something even more important into their divisional playoff game at Chicago. A grudge. The Bears won 13-3 back on Nov. 20 in a game that ended a six-game Panthers winning streak.

"They whooped up on us pretty good last time around," Fox said. "They are a good football team. They are seeded second and they're sitting at home resting.

"That's who's up next."

With another complete game like this one, the Panthers could find themselves in Seattle two weeks from now, playing for a trip to Super Bowl XL.

Greg Garber is a senior writer for ESPN.com.