Like the Redskins, the Panthers are another out-of-contention opponent whose recent performance compares favorably to that of the Giants. Yes the Panthers are 6-8, but as they showed during last Sunday night's nationally televised beat-down of the Vikings, they're not a bad team at all, particularly when Jake Delhomme isn't under center. Think of it this way: The Panthers got off to a disastrous 0-3 start but have gone 6-5 since then. The Giants cruised to a 3-0 start but have gone 5-6 since then. Sure that's a selective sample, but the point is that this is going to be tough.
Panthers Offense vs. Giants Defense:
Normally, I have very little patience for simplistic sports analysis that ascribes too much credit or blame to one player -- usually, things are more complicated than that. But if you want to know how the Panthers went from 12-4 to 6-8 mediocrity, look no further than Jake Delhomme and the train-wreck that became of his career. Delhomme was pretty decent last year, his playoff meltdown against Arizona notwithstanding: He posted an 84.7 rating, good for 14th in the league, and was 5th in yards per attempt with 7.9. But this year? Try a 59.4 rating, which ranked 32nd in the league among eligible quarterbacks. Because Delhomme hasn't played the last three games, there are three quarterbacks -- Cutler, Stafford, and Sanchez -- who have thrown more interceptions than him. But nobody with nearly as many picks approaches his brutal 8:18 TD to INT ratio.
The thing is, the Panthers are essentially the same team as last year in every other facet, at least statistically. They are averaging 4.7 yards on the ground this year compared to 4.8 last year, which speaks volumes of the running game considering what has become of the passing game. On defense, they're allowing 20.6 points per game, compared to... 20.6 last year. They are allowing 5.3 yards per play this year, compared to... 5.2 last year.
Delhomme hasn't played since breaking his middle finger in a ghastly loss to the Jets this year, which is funny because the Panthers' fan base has given him plenty of perfectly healthy middle fingers. His replacement, career backup Matt Moore, has been perfectly adequate, with a rating of 88.1 for the year. Essentially, Moore replaces Delhomme's adequacy from last year, which in theory makes the Panthers a very dangerous team again. His three games as a starter have essentially borne that out: The Panthers have gone 2-1, with a very impressive victory against the Vikings and a non-shameful road loss to the Patriots.
So the Giants should be concerned about this offense, and their concerns should be exacerbated because it's looking like neither Corey Webster nor Aaron Ross will play. Terrell Thomas is now our number one corner who will likely shoulder the responsibility of covering Smith. Thomas is coming off a career game and has played very well this year, but might not have the speed to keep up with Smith. Kevin Dockery, who will likely be starting opposite Thomas, has the speed, but not the ball-skills to compete for balls with Smith.
Those injuries to the corners are bad for the Giants, but what's bad for the Panthers is DeAngelo Williams's ankle injury - the explosive back is listed as doubtful. Williams was averaging 5.2 yards per carry, so the drop-off to Jonathan Stewart, who is averaging a still-excellent 4.5 yards per carry, is nonetheless significant.
One thing the Panthers don't do well is protect the passer. Their adjusted sack rate, a Football Outsiders stat that adjusts conventional sack totals for situation and number of passing attempts, ranks 19th in the league. Last week's Giants game proved the importance of a strong pass rush. It is absolutely critical that the Giants put pressure on Moore. If they don't, Smith will hurt them.
Giants Offense vs. Panthers Defense
Despite some injuries, the Panthers defense might actually be better than it was last year -- it has jumped from 13th in the league in DVOA -- a Football Outsiders stat that adjusts each play for situation and opponent -- to 7th. As was the case last year, they defend the pass very well (5th in the league) but struggle against the run (24th).
We all remember that running game was the key to the Giants victory in the Meadowlands in Week 16 last year. The Giants rushed for 301 yards, including 215 from Derrick Ward in a career-performance. The Giants running game has looked much better in recent weeks, especially Ahmad Bradshaw. A good performance from him is imperative - considering every game is a must-win and Bradshaw's health continues to come around, it's time to face the fact that Jacobs is washed up.
Eli Manning, on the other hand, is playing his best football ever. It's strange that the ascension of Eli from a merely capable (if clutch) steward into an all-around excellent quarterback has gone somewhat unremarked upon. Remember after the first Eagles game, his second bad game in a row, when it looked like he was slipping prematurely into his usual second-half slide? In the six games since, he has averaged a rating of 108.9, with 13 TDs to just 3 INTs. When the Giants gave Eli his big payday, they needed him to make the leap from a decent quarterback who could win with a good team around him to one that can carry a team. He has done just that.
Prediction: Another hard-fought game just like last year. I sincerely believe the Panthers are closer to being the team they were at this time last year than the one they've been for most of this year. I sincerely hope the Giants are beginning to play good football at the right time. And I know they and the fans will be fired up for the last game ever at Giants Stadium. Giants 27 - Panthers 20.