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Pro Football Talk’s Ted Sundquist Giants-Panthers Scouting Report

Pro Football Talk analyst and former Broncos GM Ted Sundquist give a scouting report for tonight’s matchup (From Pro Football Talk):

“The top two teams in the NFC meet in what could also prove to be a glimpse of what might come in the NFC Championship on January 18. This games looms large for both clubs who sit at 11-3 atop the conference but appear headed in different directions. The New York Giants got off to a blistering start and charged into the last quarter of the season with just one loss, but have since gone on a two game skid that has left “G” fans scratching their heads. Meanwhile in Charlotte, the Panthers have put together a 3 game streak with wins over likely playoff contenders Tampa Bay and Denver.Carolina plays with a lot on their minds in the face of the sad news of their owner Jerry Richardson facing needing a heart transplant. On the line is the No. 1 seed and home field advantage throughout the playoffs. Will the trends continue in both directions or will New York seize some much needed momentum heading into January?For all the points and offense that the Panthers appear to have piled up over the 2008 season, they look somewhat mediocre on paper. Carolina sits 12th in total offense; 4th rushing and 21st passing. They’re 22nd in first downs, 22nd in 3rd down conversions, 21st in time of possession and 28th in first down efficiency.They’re not a team to grind it out the long/hard route and will stall with 3 & outs some 24.6% of the time(21st). What the Panthers can do is strike with the “big play”.Carolina is 2nd in quick strike points (59), tied for 3rd in plays over 20+ yards and pretty much dominate every category of inside the 30 offense.

KEY #1 will be to strike at the Giant defense with the deep pass. New York is allowing opposing QB’s to throw for a 91.5 rating of 21+ “air yards” (27th in the League). Thirty-four passes have gone for 20+ yards against one of the more stingy units in the NFL. WR’s Steve Smith and Mushin Muhammed average over 14 yards per catch, but QB Jake Delhomme is passing at around average with attempts of 21+ yards or more. The Panthers will want to back off New York from stacking the LOS on RB’s DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart (almost 2000 yards combined).

Carolina’s defense faces newly crowned Pro Bowler Eli Manning and his 87.2 QB rating. Manning has effectively operated this offense for much of the season with a “monster” running game (Jacobs (knee), Ward (ankle) & Bradshaw (neck)), and “big play” receivers in Amani Toomer, Steve Smith & Domenik Hixon (ankle).

But Manning struggles at times in the face of blitz and has been sacked 23 times this season. Against Dallas last week he was sacked an astounding 8 times and threw 2 picks. New York’s O-Line is shell shocked at the moment and must rebound in the face of pressure from the Panther’s DE Julius Peppers.

KEY #2 will be Carolina’s ability to create some push up front and fluster Manning. New York’s running attack has stumbled the past month but the Giants are one of the best at converting 3rd & long situations via the air. Carolina has held opponents to a 21.3% conversion rate in those very scenarios and if the Panthers can maintain their efficiency with first down defense (6th), look for a direct collision late in the series.

New York must get their ground game back on track and fast. Though a bit banged up in the backfield, the Giants will want to establish control of the LOS at home. Their ability to move the ball on first down with the rushing attack has taken the pressure off the downfield pass and actually opened up more opportunity for the deep ball. The past two weeks NYG hasn’t eclipsed the 100 yard mark on the ground and their longest play to a WR has been just 19 yards.

KEY #3 will be to take on the Carolina front seven who rank 18th in stopping the run at 111.5 per game. This too will be placed on the shoulders of the O-Line and their ability to create some movement upfront against big Ma’ake Kemoeatu (ankle) and company. The Giants should once again attack to their left where they average an outstanding 6+ per carry (1st in the NFL).

KEY #4 will be DC’s Corey Webster and Aaron Ross directly matched up on WR’s Steve Smith and Muhsin Muhammed. Smith is the Panther’s “go to” threat and has 6 TD’s with his 17.7 per catch average. Muhammed brings size and strength down into the red zone where Carolina ranks 1st in play efficiency and 3rd in scoring efficiency.

With New York focused on bottling up Williams and Stewart, the secondary will be frequently left on its own (dangerously so) to slow down the production of Carolina’s talented duo. Smith is on a tear with 22 receptions for 387 yards and 2 TD’s over the 3 game win streak. “Moose” has posted 9 for 163 yards and complemented the speedy Smith very well.

The NYG secondary has 16 interceptions in ’08 with two returned for scores. I think the Giants will “step up” vs. the run and the hopes of their fans will rest on how they handle the “big play” passing attack of Delhomme.

KEY #5 will be the punt returns of NY’s Domenik Hixon and Carolina’s Mark Jones. Hixon averages 10.1 per return and has a long of 50. Jones averages 11.7 with a long of 55. The dynamic of a big return after a solid stand by your defense can go a long way in turning momentum in your favor. Hixon and Jones have that ability, but NYG is 2nd & Carolina 6th in coverage. This could make for some interesting 4th downs.

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