Sunday, January 15, 2006

Week 18: Panthers 23 - Giants 0

The back pages. All week long, the back pages. Pictures of Tiki, Strahan, Eli, Coughlin; big, bold headlines with some innocent enough comment turned into a screaming headline. There’s nothing like playoff fever, and with the Mets and Yankees quiet, the Knicks a lost cause (or so it seemed a week ago) and hockey still dead (Mark Messier night notwithstanding), the Giants were the only show in town. What a pleasure it is to read every article in every paper, to pour through quotes and gauge the confidence levels of both teams, to listen to every expert’s “keys to the game” – the awesome anticipation of it all!

Early in the week, the forecast was predicting low 40s and rainy, a real unpleasant, slushy, nasty day for what was going to be, by all indications, a hard-fought battle between two very evenly matched teams. Both the Giants and the Panthers came into the game with identical 11-5 records, and had pretty much stayed within a game of each other among the upper echelon of the NFC the entire season. The Panthers had shown flashes of brilliance at times, but had been plagued by an inconsistency all year long that had prevented them from attaining the NFC top-dog status that, with the dropoff of the Eagles, many people thought was theirs for the taking. Their previous two games illustrate this frustrating inconsistency: First, a bitter home loss to a decent, but inferior Cowboys team that would ultimately preclude them from winning the division; but the next week, an impressive 44-11 road blowout of the Falcons (who, admittedly, seemed to have mailed in their season) that propelled them into the playoffs. The question remained: Just who were the real Panthers?

Nobody knew, but we did know this: they were led by an outstanding defense that ranked fourth in the NFL in DVOA (an advanced metric created by the smart folks at footballoutsiders.com that breaks down every play of the NFL season and calibrates each play to the league average, which you can read about further by clicking on my simplified explanation here), a unit spearheaded by the league’s best front four, as well as an outstanding secondary that gives them the ability to blitz frequently because their defensive backs are more than capable of holding their own. On offense, they were led by Steve Smith, the electrifying little dynamo who was the consensus best receiver in the NFL this year, and their sometimes brilliant but interception-prone quarterback Jake Delhomme, to go along with their sometimes-brilliant, but sometimes-ineffective running game comprised of the big-small combination of DeShaun Foster and Nick Goings. We knew that the Panthers were good, but there were a lot of variables that would determine exactly how good.

The same could be said about the Giants, a team that had looked outstanding at times this season, but came into this game with both a struggling young quarterback and a severely depleted linebacking corps. Eli Manning had a wondrously auspicious start to his first full season as a starter: through his eighth game, he had thrown 14 touchdowns to just 5 interceptions, but he struggled mightily in the second half, throwing 15 interceptions to 10 touchdowns. Eli is still The Franchise, and his second half dropoff, while indeed an extreme case, is not uncommon to young quarterbacks who are enduring the rigors of their first full season of NFL action. It is clear, though, that Eli is not an excellent NFL quarterback quite yet (he ranked 21st in DVOA among quarterbacks), and that the days where he will be leading the Giants to the Super Bowl, as opposed to competently riding the coattails of an offense chock-full of weapons, are somewhere in the future. And as the New York papers pointed out ad nauseum all week long, the bulls-eye is clearly on Eli’s back in this game; the Panthers have declared a pre-game defensive strategy of ganging up to stop Tiki Barber in the running game, leaving them to take their chances with the young quarterback and his passing game.

The linebackers, by this point and after so many news articles, are another old story. To quickly rehash, they have lost four of their top five guys, and enter this playoff game with only one player (Nick Greisen) who was even within shouting distance of the rotation, let alone the team itself, at the beginning of the year. The other starting linebackers are Alonzo Jackson -- who has been playing special teams the entire year -- and Kevin Lewis, a former starter for the Giants who lost his roster spot to Chase Blackburn (since injured) and whom the Giants rescued from the unemployment line a few weeks ago. The linebackers looked competent last week against the Raiders, however, and the Panthers running game, while occasionally excellent, doesn’t exactly inspire fear. It should be an excellent game, and nobody knows who is going to win. The Vegas odds have the Giants favored by 3 at home, a line that gives you a good idea of who the home team is, but not necessarily of who the better team is.

79,378 Giant fans have an opinion on the matter though, as they rabidly wave white towels given to them at the gate in giddy anticipation of their first playoff game since 2002, and their first home playoff game since 2000. Those early reports of crummy weather have proven false; as kickoff approaches, it is a gloriously sunny day in the Tri-State area, with a dry field and a neutral temperature in the high 40s, conditions you would expect more in Charlotte, North Carolina than East Rutherford, New Jersey. Nevertheless, “Hell’s Bells” blares, as it has all season, the crowd crescendos, as they have all season -- only this time with more vehemence -- and when Jay Feely puts the foot to it, the playoffs are underway.

Things look promising for Giants in the early going: with Carolina facing a 3rd and 13 on their first series, Osi Umenyiora swoops around the edge and dexterously knocks the ball loose from Jake Delhomme’s hand, a move that the freakishly athletic Umenyiora has perfected in this his breakout year, and although the Panthers recover the fumble, it seems as if more good things are in store for the jacked-up Giants and their hungry fans. This optimism continues as the Giants take possession, pick up a quick first down, and then cross into Panther territory on the next play, a 7 yard run by Tiki Barber, presumably the first of many Tiki successes. So far, so good.

The Giants stall on this drive, however, when they fail to convert a 3rd and 2, and from there, the remainder of the first quarter would lock into a brisk, intense stalemate, with both offenses playing it close to the vest. But as the teams switch sides for the second quarter, the Panthers are able to string together some first downs -- four of them on the drive -- to take them down to the Giant 22. On the next play, the Panthers eschew incremental progress and send the blazingly fast Steve Smith on a circular post pattern, who easily beats the overmatched Terrell Buckley and is hit in stride for the touchdown. A ghastly silence falls over the Meadowlands as Smith unveils his latest creative touchdown celebration, a mimed snow-angel on the Meadowlands field turf -- forget that the weather is temperate and sunny. It wasn’t his greatest stroke of creativity, but he makes his point: the Panthers are perfectly comfortable here in Meadowlands, and the shocked silence of the crowd is supplanted by a kind of wounded booing. On the play, the Giants had Terrell Buckley in press, bump-n-run coverage against the speedy Smith, with safety Brent Alexander stationed deep to provide the over-the-top help. But the Panthers sent their other receiver -- lined up wider than Smith on the same side -- on a deep pattern, and Alexander overanxiously jumped this outside receiver and lost track of Smith. This left Smith in a one-on-one with the aged Buckley, who was a fine corner in his day, which happened to be in the mid-nineties, and who the Giants signed towards the end of the year as a “street free agent.” Needless to say, the NFL’s best receiver won this matchup, staking his team to the 7-0 lead.

It was a long, bruising clockeater of a drive for the Panthers, 7:46 all told, and now it’s been a while since the Giants have had the ball. There is a palpable tension in the Meadowlands right now; the Panthers drive was a statement. But the Giants are able to pick up a couple of first downs on their ensuing set, and get into Panther territory before stalling, forcing an excellent Feagles punt which pins the Panthers down at their own 7.

The crowd celebrates the punt, trying very, very hard to stay alive as a presence for their home team, and they rise to their feet when the Panthers quickly face a 3rd and 8. But Nick Goings, the Panthers darting change-of-pace back, catches a pass out of the backfield and scurries his way to the first down, and the disappointed, antsy onlookers must settle back down in their seats. Soon enough, however, the Panthers face another 3rd and long, this time a 3rd and 11, and the crowd dutifully rises again – this time we'll stop ‘em! But it is Goings again, on a draw play this time, picking up 10 yards before he is even touched, falling across the first down marker for the next disappointment as the clock continues to tick – 2:29 remaining in the half now – and the uneasiness continues to build. Goings again on the next play, ripping one off for 18 yards that gets the Panthers close to midfield; at this point, things look bleak. The Giants inability to stop the Carolina run is extremely troubling, with their struggling linebackers getting pushed around and missing tackles all over the place, allowing the Panthers to accumulate deflating first downs and control the clock. And while the Giants are able to stop the Panthers on their next set, this series -- which saw the Panthers move from deep into Giants territory all the way to midfield -- represents both a moral and field position victory for the visitors.

Nevertheless, as the Panthers line up to punt, the Meadowlands crowd revs up again in the hopes of spurring on their dragging heroes, and they erupt in a roar when punter Jason Baker shanks one of the side of his foot, a brutal kick that represents the first break the Giants have caught in nearly a full half of playoff football. But because the punt was so unexpectedly short, Gibril Wilson, who was downfield blocking the flanked “gunner” on the play, has no reason to suspect that the ball is perilously close to him; it bounces off his unsuspecting calf and onto the ground, a live ball, and is recovered by the Panthers at the Giants 15. A horrible break, and the Meadowlands crowd is surreally silent, confronting in earnest for the first time the possibility that it is not the Giants’ day.

The Panthers eagerly hop out to expand their lead, which actually seems like it should be much more than 7-0 given how much they’ve dominated the action. The Giants defense is able to buckle down here, however, and the Panthers settle for a John Kasay field goal that pushes the lead to 10-0 going into the half, and as the teams trot into the locker room, a loud, angry rumble of boos rains down on the flat Giants, who have played worse than anyone could have possibly feared. The Panthers have had the ball for 21 minutes, the Giants 9, and have run 37 plays to the Giants 17. Although a ten point deficit is certainly surmountable, the lifeless Giants offense faces a tall order against Carolina’s stout defense, which has so far succeeded in its game plan to bunch up and stop Tiki Barber.

But if there’s one thing that the Giants have showed us this year, it’s that they are capable of generating offense both quickly and when they need it; and even after this truly awful half of football, they are still a break or two from being within one score. Many a football game follows this path: one team dominates for the majority of the time, but because their lead is not commensurate with their domination, the trailing team is able to catch a couple of breaks, pull close, and then, shockingly, find itself with the momentum and a chance to win the game. Such a scenario is certainly not out of the realm of possibility for the Giants, and the faithful is back into it as John Kasay kicks off to begin the second half. And on the first play from scrimmage, Eli Manning lofts a nice touch pass to Jeremy Shockey – who has done absolutely nothing to this point – for a 25 yard gain, taking the Giants across midfield and giving their fans some hope that this game will become what the announcers call “a game of two halves.” Every team is capable of outplaying any other team in one half of football, the Giants and their fans hope -- if they can do it, we can do it!

But Big Blue stalls on their next set, and the lead remains 10 as the Panthers trot out for their first crack at the second half, which, after a few plays, begins to look frighteningly familiar to the first half, as the combination of DeShaun Foster and Nick Goings continues to trample over the Giants depleted run defense. Between the running of those two and the crisp passing of Jake Delhomme, the Panther move all the way down to the Giants 36, on the doorstep of at least 3 more points, if not a devastating touchdown. But Michael Strahan valiantly grinds his way to a key 3rd down sack of Delhomme – one of the rare times the Giants have been able to stop the Panthers on 3rd down today – and the visitors are forced to punt. The lead is still ten, and the game is still within reasonable reach.

So with 7:16 remaining in the third quarter, the Giants resume possession at their own 16. They’ve certainly been bad today, but not completely awful; if they could have just had the fortune of putting some of their first downs together to get them in field goal range, we would have a ballgame. But on the first play of their set, Eli gets flushed out of the pocket by a Panther rush that’s been consistently present, and in his overanxiousness to make something happen, the young quarterback commits a fatal error, flinging the ball across his body and into triple coverage, where it is snatched out of the air by Carolina’s leaping Kenny Lewis, who makes a few moves and brings the ball all the way back to the Giants 12. Heartbreaking, but it was nothing compared to the next play, when Steve Smith takes the handoff on an an end-around, jets around contain-man Gibril Wilson, and follows a caravan of blockers to the endzone for the easy touchdown. 17-0 Panthers, and as the Meadowlands falls into an awful silence, and as the ecstatic screams of the visiting Panthers fill the void in the air, this game, and the 2005 Giants season, is over.

With 6:57 remaining in the 3rd quarter, there was of course more football to be played, but it can’t be said that anybody in the building harbored any hope for Big Blue. Their next possession ended with an Eli interception, which the Panthers followed with some more dominant running and a sprinkling of effective passing by Jake Delhomme. The Giants were obviously expecting the run, and their inability to stop it attests to the painful fact that in this game, at this point in the season, Carolina is just the much better team. They take it all the way down to the 11 and settle for a field goal, pushing the lead to 20-0, as we’re now in the fourth quarter.

Eli throws another interception on the next series, capping an awful game that capped the major step back that was his second half of 2005. All in all, it’s certainly unfair to call 2005 a disappointment for the Franchise Quarterback who showed such great promise at the beginning of the year, but his eventual status as an elite quarterback is far from a foregone conclusion. For the record, the crowd chooses this last punch to the gut to take their leave; it’s been a painful day. As the crowd thins out, the Panthers march downfield again, picking up first downs and winding down the clock. They get all the way down to the Giants 1, and then John Kasay closes out the scoring by knocking a field goal against a backdrop of empty red seats. 23-0 Panthers, and after an Eli fumble – his fourth turnover in four second half possessions – the Panthers take a few knees and the final gun sounds on the 2005 Giants season.

***

Any way you look at it, it was a complete annihilation. The Panthers outgained Big Blue 335 to 112, out-first-downed the G-Men 23-9, and had the ball for 42:45 to the Giants’ 17:15. There is certainly a lot of blame to throw around for this one, but to me, it started with the now oft-written-about “depleted linebacking corps.” The Panthers’ running game, not a dominant force by any stretch of the imagination, was made to look like the Cowboys of the mid-nineties. So consistently were the Giants linebackers out of position, and so often did they miss tackles, that the team's leading tackler on the day was Gibril Wilson, a safety, who had 15. Wilson and Brent Alexander, the two safeties, amassed 25 tackles between them compared to the 24 made by all three Giants starting linebackers.

It was the Panthers ability to establish the run and consistently “win on first down” that allowed them to control the clock, move the ball, and keep the Giants offense off the field, which, for its part, was never able to establish any sort of rhythm. The Panthers’ strategy of stuffing men in the box to stop Tiki Barber proved successful, as Eli Manning and the Giants’ passing game had no answer. Eli had an awful day, going 10/18 for 113 yards and those three interceptions, to go along with a lost fumble. It was a discouraging day for the quarterback who had looked so encouraging early on, but I think I speak for all Giants fans in expressing utmost confidence that Eli will one day lead us deep into the playoffs.

As was the case with Eli, the Giants endured an ugly ending to what was, overall, a very encouraging season. Big Blue had their moments and showed their flashes: Eli’s four eleventh-hour, final drive heroics; the Giants mid-season defensive dominance; Plaxico’s emergence into a big-time player, and someone who should really further emerge into a star; Osi Umenyiora’s explosion into a dominant force at defensive end and Michael Strahan’s remarkable comeback; the overall solid play and good health of the offensive line; Amani Toomer, an old Giants dog who learned the new tricks of a possession receiver; Jeff Feagles continued excellence, in a year that saw him set the NFL’s consecutive games record; the stoutness of the Giants defensive tackles, an unexpected source of consistent solidness; Antonio Pierce’s emergence into, in Michael Strahan words, the “heart and soul” of the defense; and Tiki Barber, who had the greatest season of any offensive player in Giants history. The future looks bright in East Rutherford. Go G-Men!

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