(Sports Network) – The New York Giants will officially christen their new stadium by hosting the same opponent the team closed out its old venue against. They’ll be hoping for a vastly different outcome, however.
New York gave a most improper sendoff to Giants Stadium, the franchise’s home for 34 seasons, by dropping a 41-9 decision to the Carolina Panthers in the penultimate week of the 2009 campaign. In perhaps an intended twist of irony, the NFL’s schedule-makers have given Big Blue a quick opportunity to avenge that embarrassing defeat this Sunday, when the Giants and Panthers each begin their 2010 ledger in the first regular-season game held at Meadowlands Stadium.
That late-December meeting offered an accurate symbol as to how both teams closed out their respective years. The lopsided victory was one of four by Carolina over the final five weeks of the 2009 season, a turnaround that coincided with lightly-tested quarterback Matt Moore’s takeover of the position following an injury to veteran incumbent Jake Delhomme. The Giants, on the other hand, lost eight of their last 11 contests after a 5-0 start and had a string of four consecutive playoff appearances come to an end.
Even with rookie second-round pick Jimmy Clausen waiting in the wings, Moore enters 2010 as the Panthers’ unquestioned starter under center after completing nearly 63 percent of his passes and throwing just one interception during the 4-1 finish. The former undrafted free agent will again be aided by a punishing ground game headlined by one of the league’s premier ball-carrying duos in DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart, who became the first teammates to rush for over 1,100 yards in a season last year.
Stewart had a field day against New York’s submissive defense in last December’s rout, with the third-year pro establishing a Panthers’ single-game record by racking up 206 yards and a touchdown on 28 attempts.
Performances like that one were all too common for a Giants’ stop unit that was woeful down the stretch of last season, surrendering 40 or more points in five of the team’s eight defeats. The organization went to great lengths to fortify that side of the ball as a result, bringing in ex-Bills coordinator and interim head coach Perry Fewell to serve as the defensive architect and landing several new pieces through either free agency (safety Antrel Rolle, linebacker Keith Bulluck) or the draft (end and first-round draft choice Jason Pierre-Paul).
Carolina will have plenty of new faces on defense as well, with five starters from the 2009 edition no longer on owner Jerry Richardson’s payroll. The most notable departure is Julius Peppers, with the All-Pro end taking his freakish athletic talents and 81 career sacks in eight seasons to Chicago during the free agent signing period.
The 82,566-seat Meadowlands Stadium, a joint venture between the Giants and crosstown-rival Jets in which both teams will share tenancy, is the second- largest facility in the NFL in total seating and will be the site of Super Bowl XLVIII in February of 2014.
The Panthers lead the all-time series with the Giants, 3-2, breaking a deadlock in the series with the aforementioned 41-9 demolition of Big Blue in North Jersey in Week 16 of last season. New York won the previous meeting, a 34-28 overtime affair at the Meadowlands in Week 16 of the 2008 campaign.
The most memorable contest between the two occurred in a 2005 NFC First-Round Playoff, a 23-0 blanking of the Giants by the Panthers in the swamps of Jersey.
Panthers head coach John Fox is 3-2 in his career against the Giants, for whom he served as defensive coordinator from 1997 through 2001. New York’s Tom Coughlin is 2-2 against Fox, but is 4-2 against the Panthers, with two of the wins dating back to his tenure with Jacksonville (1995-2002).
WHEN THE PANTHERS HAVE THE BALL
With a pair of 1,000-yard rushers in the backfield and a quarterback with only eight career starts under his belt, it’s no secret what the Panthers’ offensive intentions will be come Sunday. Carolina ranked third in the NFL in rushing (156.1 ypg) in 2009 and gashed the Giants for 247 yards on the ground in last year’s visit, with Stewart (1133 rushing yards, 18 receptions, 11 total TD) doing most of the damage while Williams (1117 rushing yards, 7 TD, 29 receptions) sat out with a sprained ankle. Expect the latter to get the bulk of the work in Week 1, however, since Stewart missed the entire preseason while on the mend from heel surgery and may be limited in the opener. Moore (1053 passing yards, 8 TD, 2 INT) showed to be an effective game manager in his late-season audition, and the 26-year-old figures to be used in a similar capacity due to the team’s excellent running game and a lack of reliable pass- catchers outside of star wideout Steve Smith (65 receptions, 7 TD). Dwayne Jarrett (17 receptions, 1 TD) and Brandon LaFell (3rd Round, LSU) are the main candidates to line up outside the four-time Pro Bowler, and one is a career underachiever and the other an unproven rookie. The Panthers will be without one of their top run blockers for the game, with hulking right tackle Jeff Otah still recovering from a knee procedure, but the offense didn’t suffer when backup Geoff Schwartz filled in at that spot for the final three games of last season.
Although the Giants’ biggest problems on defense came against the pass last season, they’ll obviously have to do a better job in handling Carolina’s physicality at the line of scrimmage in order to have a successful home opener. The addition of Bulluck (108 tackles, 3 INT with Tennessee), a two- time Pro Bowl participant who’s started 130 games over a 10-year career, is expected to help stabilize a linebacking corps that was shaky a year ago, and he and speedy weakside starter Michael Boley (84 tackles, 1 sack) will be counted on to prevent the Panthers’ backs from running wild. The safety situation was an even bigger mess in 2009, but the signing of the playmaking Rolle (72 tackles, 1.5 sacks, 4 INT with Arizona) and talented third-year man Kenny Phillips’ (13 tackles, 2 INT) comeback from a career-threatening knee injury that limited him to two games last year should help shore up that area. The secondary would also benefit from bounce-back years out of ends Justin Tuck (59 tackles, 6 sacks), Osi Umenyiora (29 tackles, 7 sacks) and Mathias Kiwanuka (61 tackles, 3 sacks), three accomplished pass rushers who all endured a dip in production last season.
WHEN THE GIANTS HAVE THE BALL
New York led the NFL in rushing yards during its 12-4 season of 2008, but morphed into more of a pass-oriented operation last year to take advantage of Eli Manning’s continued progress as a quarterback and the team’s young talent at wide receiver. Manning (4021 passing yards, 27 TD, 14 INT) established career-bests in nearly every statistical category in 2009 as the triggerman of an offense that averaged 265.4 yards per game through the air (11th overall), while the Giants’ Steve Smith (1220 receiving yards, 7 TD) shattered a club record with 107 catches en route to a Pro Bowl nod. Fellow wideout Hakeem Nicks (47 receptions, 6 TD), New York’s top pick in the 2009 draft, quickly emerged as a dangerous big-play threat during his rookie campaign, while third-year pro Mario Manningham (57 receptions, 5 TD) and tight end Kevin Boss (42 receptions, 5 TD) give Manning two more useful options when he drops back to throw. The ground attack was a disappointment last season, with top backs Brandon Jacobs (835 rushing yards, 18 receptions, 6 total TD) and Ahmad Bradshaw (778 rushing yards, 7 TD, 21 receptions) both hampered by injuries and an aging offensive line displaying signs of decline. Bradshaw looked healthy and quick during the preseason, though, and seems to have supplanted the 264-pound Jacobs as the primary man in the backfield.
Look for the Giants to get back to basics and utilize a smashmouth approach against an undersized Carolina defense that finished 22nd versus the run (124.8 ypg) and won’t have one of its impact stoppers, weakside linebacker Thomas Davis (61 tackles, 1.5 sacks, 2 INT), due to a probable season-ending ACL tear incurred during minicamp. Two-time All-Pro Jon Beason (141 tackles, 3 sacks, 3 INT) will shift from the middle into Davis’ spot in the reconfigured arrangement, with ex-Penn State star Dan Connor (30 tackles) entering the starting lineup inside. The Panthers will also miss the game-changing skills of Peppers, though the team still possesses a host of capable pass-rushers in ends Tyler Brayton (45 tackles, 5 sacks), Charles Johnson (25 tackles, 4 sacks) and situational sophomore Everette Brown (22 tackles, 2.5 sacks). The trio’s ability to generate pressure should assist a solid secondary that yielded the fourth-fewest passing yards in the league in 2009 and contains two quality covermen in cornerbacks Chris Gamble (58 tackles, 4 INT, 12 PD) and Richard Marshall (88 tackles, 4 INT).
With both offenses looking to establish themselves on the ground, the running backs seem to be the safest sources of fantasy points in this matchup. Stewart’s preseason ailments make Williams the more attractive member of Carolina’s outstanding tandem, though both are worth using on Sunday. Bradshaw’s ascent up the depth chart has vaulted him into thumbs-up status, but Jacobs is a riskier play despite a proven pedigree (15 touchdowns in ‘08). Manning is more of a low-end No. 1 option at quarterback and will be facing a defense that was strong against the pass last year, so owners should proceed with caution. The Panthers’ conservative game plan and shaky receiving corps puts Moore squarely on the sit ’em list for the time being.
As for the receivers, start Steve Smith this week. Both of them. The two wideouts with identical names are the definite focal points of their respective teams’ aerial attacks and will get plenty of balls thrown their way. Nicks has upside as a flex alternative, but no other Giants pass-catcher is consistent enough to recommend and Carolina’s remaining choices should only be used out of extreme desperation. Though there’s potential for a low-scoring contest, neither defense is overly appealing. New York needs to show it’s over last year’s meltdown and the Panthers lost a wealth of playmakers from last year’s group.
These teams share similar styles and philosophies, but the Giants seem to have an edge in established talent over a Carolina squad that’s made a half-hearted commitment to a youth movement, and that will be the difference here. Playing at home in a charged-up environment at a new stadium should also work in New York’s favor, and keep in mind that the Giants have historically started off well under Coughlin, having gone undefeated in each of the past two Septembers. It may not be a cakewalk, as the Panthers’ ability to run the football and limit big plays on defense could keep them within striking distance, but the Giants aren’t about to blow a golden opportunity to atone for last winter’s humiliating loss and put the 2009 collapse behind them.
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Giants 20, Panthers 14