The Carolina Panthers will travel to the Meadowlands to take on the New York Giants Sunday night in a matchup that will decide which team gets to host as many as two playoff games.
The Giants have already clinched the NFC East, and thus are already in the playoffs. The only question is what seed they will get. If they win this game, they will get the No. 1 seed.
The Panthers, even with the franchise's best-ever record of 11-3, still have not wrapped anything up. But, with a win, they would clinch the NFC South and the No. 1 seed in the NFC playoffs.
Anyway, enough of playoff scenarios—let's get to the matchup analyses.
Even though media darling, Giants receiver Plaxico Burress will be out for this game, and starting RB Brandon Jacobs may be sit this one out with injury, New York's offense is nothing to sneeze at.
The Giants' two leading receivers, Amani Toomer and Steve Smith (not that Steve Smith), are still 100 percent healthy and will play. Toomer and Smith have combined for 96 receptions, 1,067 yards, and five touchdowns.
However, while Toomer and Smith are NY's main yardage receivers, TE Kevin Boss has five touchdowns, which leads the team. Moreover, Boss has only caught 28 passes this season. When he makes a catch, it's likely going for six.
It's fortunate for the Giants that they have a deep passing game that they can rely on, because their league-leading ground attack shouldn't be as effective as normal.
As I mentioned earlier, Giants starting running back Brandon Jacobs may sit the game out with a knee injury. But backup Derrick Ward also looks questionable with an ankle injury. That leaves third-stringer Ahmad Bradshaw as the only part of the Giants' top-notch ground game for this week.
As I understand (correct me in the comments section if I'm wrong, please), Bradshaw is the speedy back in the trio, which could cater to the Panthers' linebacking corps' speed.
The Giants' running game should be helped by the fact that Panthers' space-eating DT Ma'ake Kemoeatu likely will not play due to an ankle injury suffered in last week's game against the Broncos.
Despite the fact that the Giants have gotten good pass-protection from their offensive line for most of the year, this could be a really bad time for it to break down (NY gave up eight sacks to the Cowboys last Sunday night).
The Panthers just hit the Denver Broncos for three sacks last week after Denver had given up just eight all season. If the Giants' offensive linemen can't get things together quickly, the Panthers' underrated defensive line could make them pay.
An advantage for the Panthers is that the Giants will likely have to pass to set up the run, which isn't the way New York likes to play. And the Panthers (with the exception of Kurt Warner and the Cardinals) have had their way with two top pass offenses this season, the Broncos and Saints'.
Should they keep the Giants' pass offense in check, the G-Men will have to work hard to get points on the board. That cause will be helped by the fact that the Panthers just don't give up many points, no matter how many yards it may allow, as they rank sixth in the league in points allowed per game (18.9).
Matchup To Watch: Panthers' linebackers against Giants RB Ahmad Bradshaw
The Panthers must contain Bradshaw, who is the deciding factor between a long, frustrating night or a 30-point game for the Giants' offense. Carolina can't afford to let Bradshaw run well and open up NY's passing game.
If he does, the Giants will be playing the way they want to—by using the run to set up the pass. And when they can do that, they're nearly unbeatable.
A week ago, after the Panthers had just burned the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' stingy run defense for 299 yards, everyone would have said that the Giants just had to stop the Panthers' ground game to make Carolina's whole offense stall.
But after the Panthers were able to pass astoundingly well to open up the running game against the Broncos (who stacked the box with eight defenders to stop the run), there's some doubt about the legitimacy of that game plan.
In addition, since being a top-five defense not only in the passing and running game but overall, the Giants have slipped. The pass defense in particular, has lost a little something, dropping down to No. 10 in the NFL, likely its lowest ranking of the season.
That's not a good trend when you've got one of the hottest, most dynamic receivers in the NFL coming to town.
Speaking of the Panthers' Steve Smith, the G-Men will heavily rely on CB Corey Webster, whose contract was recently extended for five years, to keep him at bay.
Carolina's offensive line will really need to be on top of their game against a Giants defensive line that has registered 26 sacks (and 40 as a defense, fifth in the league) this season.
But this Panthers offensive line can handle New York's fierce pass rush—it's only given up 19 sacks, good for seventh in the NFL. It will help the Panthers' offensive line tremendously if Pro Bowl DE Justin Tuck, who has 12 sacks and keys the Giants' pass rush, misses the game with his lower leg injury.
But the Giants do have one of the league's best run defenses that allows only 90.4 yards per game, led by MLB Antonio Pearce, who leads the team with 83 tackles.
It definitely has a chance to keep tabs on Panthers RBs DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart, but anything can happen (as was demonstrated in the Panthers-Bucs Monday night game). Don't be surprised if Williams, Stewart, or both rip off a long one, maybe for a score.
Carolina's running game can usually count on superb run-blocking and huge holes for the RBs to take advantage of from the offensive line. However, RG Keydrick Vincent looks to be out for this week after injuring his groin last week against the Broncos.
Anything could happen to the line with Vincent out, but the Panthers have persevered through several other injuries to offensive linemen this season.
Matchup To Watch: Panthers WR Steve Smith vs. Giants CB Corey Webster
There's no doubt that the Panthers' running game has the potential to explode against anyone at anytime. If the Panthers really want the running game to open up against a stingy Giants run defense, Steve Smith must have another big game.
The special teams battle is more or less moot because the Panthers should have better field position on drives after kickoffs—but the Giants have the better defense, so they should slight Carolina with their field position on drives after punts (with neither advantage carrying much weight).
However, if you want to get really picky, the Panthers have a minuscule advantage in that their placekicker, John Kasay, has only missed one field goal this season in 25 tries. New York's kicker, John Carney, has missed two field goals in 31 attempts.
Despite the fact that the Giants are on a two-game losing streak and will be missing Plaxico Burress, and maybe Brandon Jacobs, their offense is still, in principle, a force to be reckoned with.
It will be pivotal that the Panthers stay true to their defensive roots and keep the Giants' points to a minimum, especially with their offense facing a mostly healthy Giants defense that is still nearly a top-five unit.
But the Panthers have played well this season in its most important games, and taking into account the fact that the Giants could be without the heart and soul of their offense in Brandon Jacobs, I think the Panthers can pull out a close, hard-fought, defensive battle.