Giants vs. Panthers: Brown, Barden Now Key Ingredients in NY's Recipe to Repeat

Brad Gagnon NFL National ColumnistSeptember 21, 2012

CHARLOTTE, NC - SEPTEMBER 20:  Andre Brown #35 of the New York Giants breaks away from Charles Godfrey #30 of the Carolina Panthers for a long gain during play at Bank of America Stadium on September 20, 2012 in Charlotte, North Carolina.  (Photo by Grant Halverson/Getty Images)
Grant Halverson/Getty Images

Super Bowl winners are so rarely able to provide us with encore championship presentations because, to repeat in the National Football League, you actually have to get better. 

As a defending champ, you become target practice for each of the 13 teams that land on your schedule, which is why every weakness has to be bolstered, and new stars must emerge from the shadows just the way they inevitably do on every title-winning roster.

In a blowout victory over the Carolina Panthers Thursday night, the New York Giants showed that they have a legitimate chance to accomplish those necessary feats, with a serial roster-cut victim and a much-maligned 53rd-man combining for 268 yards of offense in relief of injured starters.

One year ago this very week, with the depleted Giants in need of a spark, an undrafted free agent named Victor Cruz exploded with a 110-yard, two-touchdown coming-out party against the Philadelphia Eagles. Cruz would become Eli Manning's most prominent and productive weapon, and the Giants wouldn't have won XLVI without him.

Thursday in Charlotte, the Giants again needed a spark with Hakeem Nicks, Domenik Hixon and Ahmad Bradshaw hurt. And not one, but two nobodies became somebodies with Cruz-like breakout performances. 

When running back Andre Brown was drafted in the fourth round by the Giants three years ago, he likely envisioned or dreamed he'd one day have this chance and would deliver with a 130-yard, two-touchdown effort in prime time. 

What he wouldn't have imagined is that such a show would come in his first career start, and that said start wouldn't come before Brown had the pleasure of being released seven different times by five NFL teams. 

Yet, in one night—in about 90 real-time minutes—Brown put together the best performance from a Giants running back in nearly two full seasons. And in that time, the former Bronco, Colt, Panther and Redskin (though he never had a positive gain for any of those teams) managed to both start and end a running back controversy. 

When Bradshaw returns, this will be a committee, at best, for him. Brown has earned key reps the rest of the way, and the Giants suddenly have a weapon they weren't aware of.

Two of them, actually. Because there was Barden, who stole 50.0 percent of Brown's spotlight in the Tar Heel State.

Barden was selected 44 spots ahead of Brown in the 2009 draft, but as soon as he failed to earn a significant role for the fourth straight summer, he had "career special-teamer" written all over him. In fact, he, too, was a strong candidate to get cut.

That was three weeks ago. 

With Nicks and Hixon down, this was his last shot at pulling a Cruz. Nine catches and 138 yards later, he's probably locked in as the team's No. 3 receiver and has probably secured the role of "Hakeem Nicks Insurance Policy No. 1."

So, in one fell swoop through North Carolina, the Giants have found a pair of those potential breakout players every Lombardi-worthy team is required to have—as if they grow on the pine trees there, but can only be seen by Tom Coughlin—and they also might have found a cure for what ailed the running game in 2011.

That was, after all, the team's biggest weakness last season. They averaged an embarrassing 3.5 yards per carry—not even good enough to be tied for last in the NFL—and managed a pathetic four total runs of 20 yards or more. 

With one career start under his belt, Brown already has runs of 31, 23, 19 and 16 yards. 

To repeat, champions have to improve. The Giants might have done that Thursday night. An encore presentation is fully within their grasp.