Panthers-Giants: Whose Best Is Better?

Matthew GilmartinSenior Analyst IDecember 25, 2008

As we all in the NFL Community here on B/R know by now, the New York Giants defeated the Carolina Panthers 34-28 in overtime of their Sunday night game last week.  And now, the road to the Super Bowl, as much as it pains me to say it, goes through East Rutherford, NJ.

New York rode the Earth and Wind (Brandon Jacobs and Derrick Ward, respectively) part of its three-headed rushing attack known as "Earth, Wind, and Fire" to a victory via their 302 yards and three touchdowns on the ground.

However, while it certainly can't come close to making up for the full extent of the damage inflicted by the Giants' running game, the Panthers' run defense was pretty banged up, and at crucial times throughout the game, had questionable personnel in the game for stopping the run.

First of all, Panthers DT Ma'ake Kemoeatu was forced to miss the game because of an ankle injury suffered against the Broncos Dec. 14.  The 345-pound behemoth is the main run-stuffer on Carolina's defensive line. 

Several of the Giants' longest runs went right up the middle—where "Kemo" normally would have been to likely shut the play down—including Brandon Jacobs' long run on the Giants' second possession of overtime to get his team deep inside Carolina territory.  A few plays later, Jacobs punched the ball into the end zone for his third and last score of the game.

Because Kemoeatu was out, the Panthers had no run stoppers on their defensive line, which made it extremely difficult for them to stop the Giants, the league's top rushing team.  It was only the third time Kemoeatu had missed a game in his career, and the first since he joined the Panthers in 2006.  What terrible timing. 

On the upside, however, Kemoeatu's ankle has apparently healed, because he is not listed as injured anymore.

In addition, the Panthers decided to try playing rookie DT Nick Hayden, a sixth-round selection in last year's draft, in Kemoeatu's place in crucial late-game defensive series.  Hayden is only one inch shorter than Kemoeatu, but you have to wonder why Carolina wanted someone weighing less than 300 pounds (Hayden weighs 291) playing defensive tackle against such a strong running team in the most pivotal part of such a huge game.

The coaches must have known something we fans didn't.

However, to New York's credit, after struggling offensively for a couple weeks, the Giants' offensive line had perhaps its best game of the season, opening up huge holes for its runners.  Sometimes it only took one Giants offensive lineman to seal off half of Carolina's defense with a well-placed block.

Even so, the Giants' running game had easily its best game of the season, and the team still only just barely won with a little luck (thank you, infamous Meadowlands wind).

So that's how the epic Giants-Panthers Sunday night matchup went.

There has been talk about a possible Giants-Panthers rematch in the NFC Championship Game.  If, in late January that notion turned to reality, anything could happen between now and then.  Injuries, suspensions, who knows?

But if both teams had everyone healthy and ready to go—excluding both teams' players on the IR—who would win?  Whose best would be better?

The Giants' ground attack wouldn't be as effective.  Ma'ake Kemoeatu would take up multiple blockers, freeing up the linebackers—namely Jon Beason, the Panthers' top tackler and the player with the second-most tackles in the NFL—to pursue the ball carrier more easily and bring him down more efficiently.

I imagine that with fewer offensive linemen available to seal off potential tacklers, there also wouldn't be as many holes in quantity or quality for New York's runners to take advantage of, making the Giants' running game even less effective.

In addition, Beason was quoted in an article published in The Charlotte Observer yesterday saying that, "...based on the film, of the 300 yards, let's say, uh, 250 were on us..." 

Sounds like one of the leaders of Carolina's defense thinks that his team's mistakes gave the Giants more than their fair share of yards in the running game.

Combine these factors, and you have a New York running game that may not even get a third of the number of yards in the running game that they got last Sunday if the teams meet again.

And we all know that Eli Manning becomes much less effective if he doesn't have a strong running game that allows him to work out of play-action.  But sometimes he can even struggle with a proficient rushing game, as was seen last Sunday night, when he threw several bad passes and was lucky that none of them were picked off.

Then add the contribution of the Panthers' running game.  Carolina rushed for 158 yards against the Giants.  The Panthers were able to do that in spite of the fact that starting RG Keydrick Vincent didn't play, that their predictable play-calling allowed the Giants to send a lot of run blitzes to corral their running attack more easily, and backup Jonathan Stewart, who hasn't been as effective as starter DeAngelo Williams this year, played during critical stretches of the game where the Panthers needed first downs but didn't get them.  

Vincent is actually on the IR and out for the season with his injury, so even if the Panthers get another shot at the G-Men in the NFC Championship Game, he won't play.  But if the Panthers balance the pass with the run better in that possible next meeting and use Williams in vital times of the game, their rushing attack will likely get a boost if these teams meet again.

Now consider the passing games.  The Panthers would have the edge, simply because their Steve Smith is a better playmaker than most other receivers in the league.  Plus, they also have reliable third-down possession receivers in Muhsin Muhammad and Dwayne Jarrett.  Furthermore, RB Williams could sneak out of the backfield and hit you for a big gain.

The G-Men have their own Steve Smith, who actually leads the team in catches (55) and almost in yards receiving (554—10 off the lead).  Amani Toomer will make almost every catch within reason, and Domenik Hixon can surprise you with a big game.  Lastly, TE Kevin Boss brings a scoring touch, as he leads the team in touchdown catches, with six.

The Panthers, however, are more or less on even footing with the Giants in terms of quarterback play.  Earlier I talked about how much Giants QB Eli Manning needs going for himself to make plays, and Carolina field general Jake Delhomme needs just as much—an efficient running game, and often an open Steve Smith; although he can hit other receivers when it counts.

So whose best is better?  If the Panthers have a healthy defensive line and make better coaching decisions, I think their best is better.  If these teams met again in the NFC Championship, I think Carolina would come out on top? 

What do you think?