What a season it has been so far for Giants fans! At 6-7 and with many crushing losses, Big Blue somehow has a chance to once again become the Rasputin of the NFL and cheat death. But the Carolina Panthers and their 13-0 record are coming to town on Sunday, which is probably the last thing that the Giants need right now. The game is Sunday at 1:00 and will be televised on FOX.
When you first look at some of Cam Newton’s stats, they don’t appear to be MVP-worthy. 3,062 yards and a 59.1 completion rate are nothing special, but his other stats and the eye test prove his worth. Newton has a stellar 28-10 TD-INT rate (plus 7 more rushing TDs), a passer rating of 96.9, and has just been plain unstoppable for most of 2015. The Giants will be hard-pressed to limit his lethal combination of passing and rushing finesse. The Giants’ own quarterback, Eli Manning, is in the midst of one of his finest seasons (3,655 yards, 28-10 TD-INT rate, 63.8 completion rate, and a 96.0 passer rating). In fact, his numbers appear to mirror Newton’s at first glance. But while Manning is a precise passer, Newton’s two-pronged attack is just too much for the Giants to handle.
The Giants are lucky that the Panthers’ leading rusher, Jonathan Stewart, is injured and will not play on Sunday. Ironically, the Panthers’ next-leading rusher is their quarterback, Cam Newton. Fullback/halfback hybrid Mike Tolbert is a powerful specimen but is too slow to be a featured back, meaning change-of-pace back Fozzy Whittaker could be in for a larger role on Sunday with Stewart out. The Giants like to feature all four of their running backs equally, but the impact of Rashad Jennings last week in Miami (81 yards, including several after contact) could mean he gets more carries. Orleans Darkwa, Shane Vereen, and Andre Williams remain involved in the Giants’ rushing attack, but struggle to get into a rhythm when their touches are limited.
Wide Receivers/Tight Ends:
The Giants and Panthers are polar opposites in terms of receiving targets. Whereas the Giants boast a top wide receiver in Odell Beckham Jr. but little else, the Panthers rely more on depth than the big name. Beckham Jr. is somehow bettering his rookie campaign this year (85 catches, 1,320 yards, 12 touchdowns), and has solidified his status as one of the NFL’s top 3 receivers. Rueben Randle and Dwayne Harris are usually either very productive or completely invisible, which frustrates the Giants. Still, they have combined for 9 touchdowns. Tight end Will Tye has become a favorite target of Eli Manning, but hasn’t been used as a deep threat very often yet. The Panthers lost their number 1 receiver, Kelvin Benjamin, in the preseason, but have made do without him. Paterson New Jersey native Greg Olsen has been a challenge for opposing secondaries at tight end. Considering how the Giants struggle with tight ends, Olsen could be in for a big day. Receivers Ted Ginn Jr., Philly Brown, Jericho Cotchery, and Devin Funchess are anything but household names, but have been reliable for Newton all season long.
The Carolina Panthers have one of the NFL’s best O-Lines, but its construction is anything but typical. Center Ryan Kalil may be the league’s best center, but the other starters a mix of undrafted free agents (Andrew Norwell, Mike Remmers), cast-offs (Michael “Blind Side” Oher), and mid-round draft picks (Trai Turner). But this group jells, and it provides holes for the running backs and time for Newton. On the other hand, the Giants’ O-Line is what it is at this point. Guard Justin Pugh and center Weston Richburg are building blocks, but Ereck Flowers, John Jerry, and Marshall Newhouse have not been consistent. Is it really a question as to who has the edge here?
Carolina has the best defensive line in football. Veteran starters Charles Johnson and Jared Allen are experts at getting to the quarterback after all their years in the game (combined 21 seasons of experience), and defensive tackles Kawann Short and Star Lotuleilei are among the league’s best DTs despite only having 3 years’ experience. A telling stat about the Panthers’ D-Line is that their rotational players have combined for a whopping 15.5 sacks while the Giants as a team have just 16. The Giants rely heavily on Jason Pierre-Paul, Robert Ayers Jr., Cullen Jenkins, and Kerry Wynn. Their combined sack total of 8.0 pales in comparison to the Panthers’. Rotational end George Selvie and starting DT Markus Kuhn are out for Sunday’s game, putting the onus on JPP and friends to have a big game.
In addition to having the best D-Line in the NFL, the Panthers also field the best group of linebackers in the league. Luke Kuechly is a beast on the football field. His 86 tackles, 1 sack, and 4 interceptions are quality numbers for any linebacker, and they have come in just 10 games! WILL linebacker Thomas Davis Sr. is a medical miracle. After tearing his ACL three times in a row, Davis has returned to form with 5.5 sacks, 88 tackles, and 3 interceptions this season. Shaq Thompson and A.J. Klein split time on the strong side and have a combined 87 tackles and 2.0 sacks. As you can tell, the Panthers’ linebackers are elite tackling machines. The same can not be said about the Giants’ linebackers. Again without Devon Kennard, the Giants are missing the playmaking linebackers that the Panthers have. Jasper Brinkley, Jonathan Casillas, J.T. Thomas III, and Mark Herzlich are competitors, but simply miss too many tackles. And when they are juxtaposed against the Panthers’ world-class LBs, the Giants’ bunch looks even more lackluster.
The Panthers’ secondary is all about one man: Josh Norman. Norman’s rise to the top of the NFL’s cornerback rankings has been well-documented, but he faces one tough test in Odell Beckham Jr. Still, Norman has limited Dez Bryant, Deandre Hopkins, Julio Jones, and T.Y. Hilton to less than 100 total yards, so the odds are in his favor. Opposite him will somehow be Charles “Peanut” Tillman. Tillman was thought to have torn his ACL earlier this week, but is in fact healthy enough to play against the Giants. Look for his backups Robert McClain and Cortland Finnegan to see plenty of time though. Safeties Kurt Coleman and Roman Harper are stereotype free and strong safeties, respectively. Coleman has 7 interceptions and one pick-six, while Harper has been very active against the run. The Giants’ cornerback combo of Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie and Prince Amukamara is steady, but they have serious depth issues behind them, as Trevin Wade, Jayron Hosley, and Trumaine McBride fail to scare anyone. Safeties Landon Collins, Craig Dahl, and Cooper Taylor are little-known and often challenged by opposing QBs. The Panthers just have the NFL’s ideal defense overall, and this certainly extends to their secondary.
If the Giants have one thing going for them, it’s usually their special teams. But with kicker Josh Brown in a bit of a rut, punter Brad Wing being called upon more than ever, and snapper Zak DeOssie injured (Danny Aiken has taken over), the Giants have lost their edge. Carolina kicker Graham Gano has not missed within 49 yards at all this year, punter Brad Nortman has a big leg (45.5 gross average), and snapper J.J. Jansen has been the man for 8 seasons in Carolina. Both of these teams feature electric return men in Dwayne Harris (Giants) and Ted Ginn Jr. (Panthers) that have the potential for a game-changing TD.
It should be said that the Giants are coming into this game on an all-time high and are playing for their lives and the Panthers could be sluggish after clinching a first-round bye, but the Panthers are simply too good for the Giants. The Panthers’ defensive line will be in Manning’s face all day long, and Norman should limit Beckham Jr.’s impact. I’d love to see the Giants pull off the major upset as a fan, but as an unbiased sportswriter, I’d be foolish not to pick the Panthers
Prediction: 37-17 Panthers (Record picking Giants games: 9-4)