January 9, 2006 Edition > Section: Sports > Printer-Friendly Version

Panthers Shut Mistake-Prone Giants Out of Playoffs

BY SEAN LAHMAN
January 9, 2006
URL: http://www.nysun.com/article/25531

The boos were raining down on the Giants as they left the field at the end of the first half, and they could be heard throughout the second half of the Big Blue's 23-0 loss to Carolina yesterday. It was a disappointing end to a season that started with such promise, and the fans were particularly disheartened by seeing such a lackluster performance in the Giants' biggest game of the year.

Head coach Tom Coughlin knew his team faced a number of challenges against the Panthers, who ranked third in overall defense during the regular season and featured the league's leading receiver in Steve Smith.

Defensive coordinator Tim Lewis said the Giants would employ cornerback Terrell Buckley to cover Smith with help from one of the safeties. That strategy seemed suspect, and the Panther's exploited it right away for their first touchdown. Smith and Keary Colbert lined up next to each other on the left side, and safety Brent Alexander inexplicably moved to help cover Colbert, allowing Smith to burst past Buckley on a quick post pattern for a 22-yard score.

But the Giants stout run defense would save the day, right? Wrong. With the safeties helping to cover Smith, they weren't available to help with the running game, and the Panthers took full advantage. DeShaun Foster and Nick Goings combined for 110 yards in the first half, frequently using draw plays to convert on third down. By keeping their drives alive, they kept the Giants' offense on the sidelines. By halftime, Carolina had run 37 plays to the Giants 17, and had held the ball for nearly 21 minutes.

A boisterous Meadowlands crowd made things difficult for quarterback Jack Delhomme and the Panthers offense in the first quarter. Dehomme's inability to hear the snap count led to two false start penalties and forced an early timeout. Unfortunately, the noise also worked against the Giants in the second quarter. Carolina punter John Baker shanked a punt, and the Giants coverage team couldn't hear return man Chad Morton frantically calling out for them to get out of the way. The punt bounced before hitting Gibril Wilson in the back of the leg. Carolina's David Wesley recovered at the 15 yard line to set up a field goal that gave the Panthers a 10-0 lead in the closing minute of the first half.

Things went from bad to worse for Big Blue in the second half. After the teams exchanged punts, Eli Manning threw interceptions on the next three Giant possessions and fumbled on the fourth. The Panthers converted each of those interceptions into points, and sat on the ball after the fumble to run out the clock and preserve their victory.

One of the interceptions came when Plaxico Burress stopped short on a crossing pattern, but the other two were simply horrible decisions by Manning. On the first, Manning stepped to his right to avoid pressure, then threw back across the field to his left. Amani Toomer was there, but so where three Carolina defenders, and cornerback Ken Lucas ended up with the ball. The third interception came when Manning overthrew an open Jeremy Shockey by at least five yards, right into the hands of safety Marlon McCree.

You have to give Manning a lot of credit for leading his team into the playoffs in his second season. No matter how disappointing his performance yesterday, the mere fact that he advanced this far so quickly is a testament to his talent, and it bodes well for his future.

Still, it's hard not to be concerned about how dramatically his performance declined as the season progressed. At the midway point of the campaign, Manning had thrown 14 touchdowns and just five interceptions. After that, he threw 15 interceptions and just 10 touchdown passes, a major reason why the team was less competitive down the stretch.

The Panthers defensive strategy was simple - contain Tiki Barber and force Manning to beat them. They stacked the line of scrimmage with defenders in the first half, holding Barber to two yards or less on six of his nine carries. His longest run of the day - a nine-yard gain - came on a meaningless draw play from the Giants' own 26-yard-line on the final play of the first half.

The Giants were forced to abandon the run in the second half, trailing 17-0, and with Barber taken out of the equation, the Giants were stuck. Smelling blood, the Panthers double-teamed Burress --holding him without a catch on the day - and neither Toomer or Shockey provided much of an option for the passing game.

It's easy to look at Manning's three interceptions or Barber's 41 rushing yards and blame the offense for losing this game. But the truth is the poor play on defense bears at least as much of the responsibility. The inability to stop the Panthers from mounting long drives in the first half took Barber out of the game, and the inability to keep Carolina off the scoreboard forced Manning to throw the ball into tight coverage while under intense pressure in the second half.

Carolina's success running the ball was, of course, due in large part to the Giants' depleted line backing corps. All three starters were sidelined with injuries, and their replacements were completely overmatched. Nick Greisen looked like he had forgotten how to tackle, and Kevin Lewis and Alonzo Jackson looked like confused matadors.

The biggest disappointment was the secondary. Even though everybody knew Steve Smith was the focal point of Carolina's offense, the Giants let him catch 10 passes and score a touchdown on a 12-yard reverse. The man is 5-foot-9, 180 pounds soaking wet. The way to stop him is to hit him hard when he comes off the line of scrimmage and knock him on his rear-end when he tries to go over the middle. Instead, the Giants tried to chase him - a contest you'll lose every time.

Gibril Wilson's over-aggresiveness allowed to Smith elude him. Will Allen tried to bring Smith down with arm tackles. Corey Webster got juked out of his cleats. Brent Alexander avoided Smith altogether. If it wasn't obvious before, this secondary is in need of a major overhaul.

When you consider where the Giants were two years ago, it's hard not to be pleased by the progress this season. Still, yesterday's loss made it clear that they aren't yet good enough to win games in the postseason. The forces of parity make it possible for teams to rebound quickly from disastrous seasons, but it's much harder to make that jump from nine or 10 wins to eleven or twelve.

January 9, 2006 Edition > Section: Sports > Printer-Friendly Version