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NFL Preview - Carolina (6-8) at N.Y. Giants (8-6)



By Scott Garbarini, Associate NFL Editor

(Sports Network) - For the second straight year, the New York Giants and Carolina Panthers will face one another at the Meadowlands in the penultimate week of the regular season. And although the stakes for this Sunday's rematch won't be quite as high as the initial meeting, the game does carry quite a bit of importance for one of these teams.

Both the Giants and Panthers brought identical 11-3 records into last December's encounter, which New York won in an overtime thriller by a 34-28 score to clinch homefield advantage throughout the NFC Playoffs. The two 2008 division champions have each failed to maintain their level of success of the previous year, however, with only the Giants heading into the season's final two weeks with a shot at returning to the postseason.

New York kept its playoff prospects intact with an eye-opening performance in Washington on Monday, when Big Blue delivered an authoritative 45-12 dismantling of the beaten-down Washington Redskins. The Giants scored on their first four possessions in building a commanding 24-0 halftime lead and received dominant displays on both sides of the ball in upping its season record to 8-6.

Quarterback Eli Manning threw for 268 yards and three touchdowns to lead the offense, while a resurgent New York defense produced five sacks and three interceptions, one of which cornerback Terrell Thomas returned for a second- half touchdown to add to the rout.

The crucial victory put the Giants one game behind Dallas and Green Bay, the current front-runners for the NFC's two Wild Card spots. New York would edge out the Cowboys if the two teams wind up with identical records, having swept the season series with its bitter division rival.

Carolina won't be making a second straight trip to the postseason, but that hasn't stopped John Fox's troops from playing with a purpose down the stretch. The Panthers have won two of their last three outings and come in off one of their best showings of the year, a 26-7 besting of playoff-bound Minnesota this past Sunday.

Matt Moore continued to make a case for being Carolina's quarterback for 2010 and beyond with a near-flawless effort under center, aiding a smothering defense that held the listless Vikings to 237 total yards and 10 first downs. Making a third straight start in place of the injured Jake Delhomme, Moore established career-bests with 299 passing yards and three touchdown strikes in directing a Panthers offense that posted its highest yardage output since Week 7. The third-year pro is expected to get the nod again this weekend, with Delhomme still bothered by a fractured finger on his throwing hand and Carolina out of the playoff chase.

The Panthers also played most of last week's game without leading rusher DeAngelo Williams, who aggravated a nagging ankle injury in the first quarter and did not return. His absence did little to slow down Carolina's powerful running game, though, with backfield mate Jonathan Stewart plowing through for 109 yards on 25 carries while scoring a pair of touchdowns.

Williams, who reached the end zone four times in last season's loss to New York, is considered questionable to suit up for Sunday's tilt.

SERIES HISTORY

The all-time series between the Panthers and Giants is knotted, 2-2, with New York evening the series by virtue of the previously-mentioned 34-28 overtime win at the Meadowlands in Week 16 of last year. Carolina has lost its last two regular season meetings with the G-Men since defeating them at Giants Stadium in 2003.

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.

The teams also met during the 2009 preseason, with New York taking a 24-17 decision at Giants Stadium on Aug. 17th.

Fox is 2-2 in his career against the Giants, for whom he served as defensive coordinator from 1997 through 2001. New York's Tom Coughlin is 2-1 against Fox, but is 4-1 against the Panthers, with two of the wins dating back to his tenure with Jacksonville (1995-2002).

WHEN THE PANTHERS HAVE THE BALL

While Carolina's offensive game plan has usually been heavily tilted towards the run, the team showed balance that's been missing for much of its disappointing season in last week's upset of Minnesota. Moore (720 passing yards, 4 TD, 2 INT) completed 21-of-33 passes while avoiding making the mistakes that have plagued the more-experienced Delhomme (2015 passing yards, 8 TD, 18 INT) throughout this year, and the 25-year-old was successfully able to utilize the Panthers' best weapon, wide receiver Steve Smith (60 receptions, 922 yards, 6 TD), against the Vikings. The four-time Pro Bowl honoree amassed season-highs of nine catches and 157 receiving yards, 42 of which came on a critical touchdown grab early in the fourth quarter. Smith has been the only reliable option for a passing attack that ranks a lowly 28th in the league (177.2 ypg), however, and protection is a concern with bookend tackles Jordan Gross and Jeff Otah having sustained season-ending injuries. The Panthers are averaging a robust 148.1 rushing yards per game (3rd overall), though, and possess two top-notch ball-carriers with the outstanding tandem of Williams (1117 rushing yards, 7 TD, 29 receptions) and Stewart (802 rushing yards, 16 receptions, 9 total TD), although the former may be held out this week due to his tender ankle.

A Giants defense that had been struggling badly over the previous two months was able to recapture its once-fearsome form on Monday, limiting the overmatched Redskins to a mere 78 total yards in the first half while repeatedly pressured quarterback Jason Campbell. Carolina's injury-plagued offensive line figures to have a tough time dealing with ends Justin Tuck (47 tackles, 5.5 sacks) and Osi Umenyiora (27 tackles, 7 sacks), two accomplished edge rushers who both had a sack in last week's triumph. New York does have some health issues in the secondary, however, although the team is hopeful that top cover man Corey Webster (51 tackles, 1 INT, 12 PD) can return from a knee sprain that kept him out of the Washington game and take his customary place alongside Thomas (70 tackles, 5 INT, 13 PD). Safety Aaron Ross (10 tackles) also missed Monday's win because of a lingering hamstring problem that has jeopardized his availability for Sunday's contest. The Giants have given up the seventh-fewest yards in the NFL (306.8 ypg) but stand just 24th in scoring defense (24.4 ppg), partly because of their troubles in stopping the enemy within the red zone. Opponents have scored touchdowns on 70 percent of their visits inside New York's 20-yard line, the highest rate in the league.

WHEN THE GIANTS HAVE THE BALL

New York would love to be able to duplicate last year's output against the Panthers, when the team bullied its way to an eye-opening 301 rushing yards on 41 attempts. The Giants led the NFL in that category in 2008 but haven't been as effective this time around, with primary back Brandon Jacobs (834 rushing yards, 18 receptions, 6 total TD) having a so-so season and running mate Ahmad Bradshaw (712 rushing yards, 7 TD, 17 receptions) battling injuries. Bradshaw appeared pretty healthy in Monday's win, though, as he compiled 90 yards from scrimmage on just 12 touches and scored two touchdowns to help complement a second straight sensational game from Manning (3584 passing yards, 26 TD, 11 INT). The franchise quarterback followed up a career-best 391-yard, three- touchdown night in a tough Week 14 loss to Philadelphia by hitting on a sharp 19-of-26 throws versus Washington. Steve Smith (90 receptions, 1093 yards, 6 TD), no relation to the Panthers' star wideout, has put forth a breakthrough year as the top target of a young wide receiver group that also contains big- play rookie Hakeem Nicks (40 receptions, 6 TD) and sophomore Mario Manningham (51 receptions, 5 TD), while tight end Kevin Boss (37 receptions, 5 TD) offers another trusty alternative to the Giants' ninth-rated passing offense (258.3 ypg).

The Panthers surrendered a scant 41 rushing yards and bottled up Minnesota All-Pro Adrian Peterson in last weekend's victory, but performances such as that one have been few and far between for a defense that's permitting an average of 130.4 yards per game (26th overall) on the ground this season. Carolina has been far stingier versus the pass, with cornerbacks Chris Gamble (52 tackles, 4 INT, 9 PD) and Richard Marshall (73 tackles, 3 INT) leading a unit that has given up the fourth-fewest yards in the league via the air (192.6 ypg) and forced 30 turnovers on the year. The secondary gets plenty of support up front from sack artist Julius Peppers (36 tackles, 9.5 sacks), whose non-stop harassment of Brett Favre helped key the Week 15 win over the Vikings, while middle linebacker Jon Beason (121 tackles, 2 sacks, 3 INT) is also an asset in coverage due to his speedy and exceptional range. Weakside starter James Anderson (53 tackles, 1 sack), filling in for injured regular Thomas Davis, also stood out last week by making 11 tackles and recording one of four Panthers' sacks.

FANTASY FOCUS

Start Steve Smith, and start Steve Smith. The two receivers that share the same name and play on different teams are the clear-cut top choices for their respective quarterbacks, and both should get plenty of passes thrown their way on Sunday. As far as the Giants' other two main wideouts, Nicks and Manningham owners need to monitor the injury report up until lineups are due, as the former came out of Monday's game with a hamstring problem that may have been precautionary. Manningham is only worth using if Nicks can't go. There's also an uncertain situation regarding Williams, and with the Panthers being notoriously tight-lipped about injuries, it may be best to explore other options even in a critical week of the fantasy season. Stewart should be a good play whether Williams is active or not, and New York's combo of Jacobs and Bradshaw should each get enough work against a suspect Carolina run defense to warrant consideration at the flex spot. Manning's recent hot streak says play him and keep your fingers crossed for good weather, and don't go overboard about Moore's great game of a week ago, as he draws a tougher assignment on the road in potentially difficult conditions.

OVERALL ANALYSIS

The Giants were able to deliver an early knockout punch to the shaken Redskins last week, but expect a Carolina team that showed a lot of grit in their last outing to get up off the canvas and go the distance. The Panthers' offense has been noticeably better with Moore in the lineup, and they're fully capable of coming through with the upset if the mistakes and breakdowns that plagued New York in midseason resurface on Sunday. Still, logic says to go with the team that's at home and has more to play for, especially if that team has scored 30 points or more in four of its last five games.

Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Giants 27, Panthers 24

12/23 16:52:04 ET