CAROLINA PANTHERS (6-8) vs. GIANTS (8-6)
THE TEAMS: The Giants will close out their home since 1976 with this one, so that alone should fire them up. But the fact that they have a very real shot at a playoff spot if they continue to win will also serve as major motivation. Given the fact that Carolina is no longer the pushover of the early season, having just come off a win over Minnesota Sunday night, the matter of motivation was Tom Coughlin's easiest job this week. "There isn’t any need to sell it," he said. "We all, as you were, I’m sure you were sitting in the hotel room and turned it on just as we did. We finished our night meetings and then we went upstairs and the Sunday Night Football thing. They played very well and were very impressive. Anybody that saw it and our players are certainly going to see it over and over. They had to be impressed by it. Very physical defensively, offensively, special teams, the running game, the young quarterback Moore making plays. There was an awful lot to look at. As I said last week, people, it’s on tape. There isn’t anything that you have to make up. There it is right for the players to see. It was there versus Washington and it is certainly there versus Carolina." The Giants took a playoff mentality into Washington and came away with their most complete victory of the season. They'll have to equal that against a resurgent Carolina team that has won two of the last three and just handed Brett Favre a game-long battering. But they haven't won two straight games since the five-game winning streak.
THE HISTORY: The series is tied 2-2, and the Giants won the last two meetings, including last season's finale at Giants Stadium, 34-28 in overtime to clinch the top seed in the playoffs. The teams have met once in the postseason, the Panthers winning 23-0 in 2005.
INJURIES: Giants -- T Kareem McKenzie (knee), G Rich Seubert (knee), CB Aaron Ross (hamstring), and CB Corey Webster (knee) are doubtful. LB Chase Blackburn (ribs), LB Michael Boley (triceps), RB Ahmad Rashad (ankles and foot), S C.C. Brown (hamstring), CB Kevin Dockery (ankle), LB Jonathan Goff (hamstring and ribs), QB Eli Manning (foot), WR Hakeem Nicks (hamstring), and K Lawrence Tynes (hamstring) are probable.
Panthers -- RB Tyrell Sutton (calf) and RB DeAngelo Williams (ankle) are doubtful. CB Richard Marshall (ankle), QB Matt Moore (shoulder) and RB Jonathan Stewart (Achilles) are questionable.
WATCH THIS: Eli Manning is on an elite streak the last two games, going a combined 46-of-64 for 659 yards, six touchdowns, and no interceptions. He's spreading the ball around, having hit 10 receivers against Washington alone, including tight ends Kevin Boss, Travis Beckum, and Bear Pascoe. He'll have to continue that mistake-free efficiency against a Carolina squad that boasts an outstanding pass rusher in Julius Peppers and a strong secondary headed up by veteran cornerback Chris Gamble. The combination of the two has allowed the Panthers to minimize the big-play potential of opponents, and was especially effective as they limited the Vikings to all of 267 total offensive yards in last week's win. "They are a talented defense," Manning said. "You can’t afford to make mistakes, turn the ball over. We just have to be consistent. They are a tough defense and it’s not a team that we play all that often." They could counter that with another dose of the middle slip-screen pass that worked so well with Ahmad Bradshaw.
If left tackle David Diehl and whoever is at right tackle, either Kareem McKenzie or Will Beatty, can neutralize the come-from-anywhere Peppers as they did the Andre Carter-Brian Orakpo combination last week, Manning might just find enough time to look downfield to Hakeem Nicks and Steve Smith. The former will be coming back after a tight hamstring sidelined him following the first half last week. If he makes it, put him down for at least one long play manufactured by his fancy footwork. And Smith, now with 90 catches for 1,093 yards and six touchdowns, is always reliable whether going to the sideline or crossing the middle of the field.
The key here, though, is controlling Peppers. He comes off a one-sack, five-pressure game against Brett Favre. He has 9 1/2 sacks, but his team-high 32 pressures have had a big hand in Carolina's pass coverage compiling 19 interceptions, fifth-best in the league. Gamble leads the Panthers with four, but right corner Richard Marshall, middle linebacker Jon Beason, and strong safety Sherrod Martin have three picks apiece. Despite the team's offensive woes, John Fox' defense has played hard throughout the season. It has allowed 30 points just twice, so it should be a challenge for an offense that has scored 30 or more points in four of its last five games.
Getting the running game going again will be key. Offensive coordinator Kevin Gilbride mixed the run and pass well last week, striking a 30-30 balance. The week before it was 38 pass, 31 run. So it looks like someone has reigned in his instinct to put the ball in the air automatically. Against Philadelphia, he even ran the ball when trailing, a departure from most of the season. The ground game has been effective, if unspectacular, with 247 yards the past two games.
The defense sacked Campbell five times and exploited a Washington line in flux. Carolina also has its problems, having replaced its two tackles. Justin Tuck has 5 1/2 sacks, a sack and a half less than team leader Osi Umenyiora, but Tuck has been the team's most consistent visitor to the backfield. Mathias Kiwanuka did another good job last week in hitting the quarterback three times and making five tackles against the run. The total run defense has improved, in fact, since Tom Coughlin benched Umenyiora on run downs for Kiwanuka. Opponents haven't run for 100 yards in three games. And the pass rush, with Umenyiora not having to worry about stopping the run, has also looked better. A lot of that has to do with the emergence of Jonathan Goff as a solid force at middle linebacker. He's got a sack and an interception along with two quarterback hits since taking over from Chase Blackburn three games ago against Dallas.
A little pressure is what they'll need to hold down Moore, who has gone 2-1 in the three games since taking over for Jake Delhomme. He's a mobile quarterback who can get the ball downfield. Moore comes off a 21-of-33, 299-yard, three-touchdown performance against Minnesota, including a 42-yarder to Steve Smith. He's been sacked six times in three games, but has only thrown two interceptions on the season.
Smith leads the Panthers with 60 catches for 922 yards (15.4 average) and six touchdowns. Eight of their receivers have at least 12 catches, but the passing game is generally a short one as five of those average 10.7 yards or less per catch.
Jonathan Stewart heads a solid running game, coming off a 109-yard, one-touchdown performance. He became the first individual back to rush for 100 yards against the Vikings this year. Stewart is doing basically a solo act the last two games since DeAngelo Williams sprained his ankle, but there's no doubting his production. He's got eight touchdowns on the season and can certainly power his way up the middle as well as hit the corner. The Giants' run defense may be looking like its old self again after allowing just 89 yards to the Redskins, 36 of which came on Campbell's scrambles.
The Panthers' punt and kickoff return game is only average, at best, so a kickoff coverage unit that dropped returners three times inside the 20 last week should have a good chance at winning the field position battle. John Kasay is 17-of-22 in field goals this year, and over the long haul has been far more consistent than Lawrence Tynes, having missed only two of 16 attempts inside 50 yards. The Giants' kicker has hit six field goals in a row.
Domenik Hixon had a 30-yard kickoff return that almost broke for a touchdown. He also has a healthy 15.1-yard average on punt returns, including a 79-yard touchdown to give the Giants the sixth-best punt return unit in the league. The Panthers' punt coverage is ranked seventh, so it should be a good matchup.
PREDICTION: Quite simply, with Minnesota coming up for the finale, the Giants can't afford to lose this one. I'm not saying it's going to be a repeat of last week, since that performance came out of nowhere, but they will find a way to exploit that banged up offensive line. If Manning continues to throw like he has been over the past couple of games, they'll put up enough points to overcome whatever Carolina does. Giants 28-17.