No. 1 Seed on the Line
East Rutherford, NJ - Even Justin Tuck says his New York Giants aren't the best team in the NFC right now. They can reclaim that stature Sunday night, or the Carolina Panthers will prove it belongs to them.
Home-field advantage throughout the playoffs will be on the line as the stumbling Giants try to silence their doubters and potentially prevent the Panthers from even clinching a postseason berth.
Oddsmakers from Online Sportsbook Sportsbook.com have made the Giants –3 point spread favorites for Sunday’s game against the Panthers. Current NFL Public Betting Information shows that 59% of more than 7,791 bets for this game have been placed on the Panthers +3.
Though both teams are 11-3 and could end the regular season with identical records regardless of Sunday's result, the one that wins will earn the tiebreaker and wrap up the No. 1 seed in the conference.
"We have a big game against Carolina this week, we all know it, we know what is at stake in it," Tuck said. "I really expect us to come out and not only try, but really right the ship because let's call it what it is, we haven't played well the last two games for whatever reason that may be and no one wants to go into the playoffs like we have the last two games."
While New York is on the verge of its first three-game losing streak since 2006 - maybe still feeling the after-effects of the distraction caused by the Plaxico Burress case - it's facing a Carolina team which has won three straight and seven of eight.
"My motto has always been, 'to be the best you have to beat the best,' and right now Carolina ... is probably the best team in the NFL," said Tuck, the defensive end recently named to his first Pro Bowl. "They look that good to me. We know we have our hands full, but we feel as though when we play Giants football we can handle anybody and that is what we have to get back to doing."
If they lose Sunday while Minnesota wins, the NFC East champions would need to beat the Vikings in Week 17 just to get a first-round bye.
The difference between winning and losing this week is just as great, if not more so, for Carolina.
While a victory keeps the Panthers at home throughout the playoffs, a loss could send them into Week 17 possibly needing a victory just to make the postseason. If Dallas, Tampa Bay and Atlanta all win their final two games, Carolina would miss the playoffs by losing its last two.
"The games do get better. That's the NFL," Panthers quarterback Jake Delhomme said. "That's part of it. That's what you want. You live to play in these situations."
New York wishes it could have avoided this situation.
Many believed the Giants were a lock for the No. 1 seed as recently as three weeks ago, having won eight in a row - many of them convincingly - to build a two-game lead for the NFC's best record. However, it was on the weekend of that eighth straight win when Burress accidentally shot himself in the thigh at a nightclub.
Since announcing Burress would not return to the team this season, the Giants have lost back-to-back games while the offense has fallen apart - its only touchdown came in garbage time during a 20-14 loss to Philadelphia on Dec. 7. Eli Manning was sacked eight times and New York was held to its lowest point total in nearly two years in a 20-8 defeat at Dallas last Sunday.
Losing right tackle Kareem McKenzie to a back injury certainly diminished Manning's protection, though he returned to practice Wednesday and hopes to play in this game. It remains uncertain if bruising back Brandon Jacobs will return after missing 2 1/2 of the last four games with knee problems.
That stretch has seen the Giants' top-ranked rushing attack held to 88.8 yards per game and 3.4 per carry. The health of Jacobs, not to mention McKenzie, appear vital especially with the lack of Burress' big presence allowing opponents to stack the line to rush Manning or slow down the run game.
"You can't use that as an excuse. He is a good player for us and, I don't want to diminish his talent, but we feel like we have guys who can make plays and do things," said Manning, who is 31-of-62 for 314 yards with two interceptions over the last two games.
Unlike New York, the Panthers have been outstanding on offense lately. They've scored at least 28 points in five straight games, gaining at least 400 yards in the last two.
A ground game led by DeAngelo Williams and rookie Jonathan Stewart keys the offense, averaging 146.1 yards to rank fourth in the NFL. They'll look to exploit a Giants run defense which has become vulnerable, giving up 131 yards to Philadelphia's Brian Westbrook before allowing 91 to Dallas rookie Tashard Choice on just nine carries.
"Their running game looks superb right now," Tuck said. "It kind of looks like our running game early in the year and obviously that is where we want to be at."
New York had lost all three meetings with Carolina before winning the most recent one, 27-13 in Charlotte on Dec. 10, 2006, behind Manning's three touchdown passes. About 11 months earlier marks the last time the Panthers visited Giants Stadium, winning 23-0 in a wild-card playoff game as they held New York to 132 total yards and intercepted three of Manning's passes.
This time, the Giants are going up against two of their former defensive coordinators. John Fox served in that role from 1997-2001 before becoming Panthers coach, and Tim Lewis had the job for three years before being fired after the 2006 season and becoming Carolina's secondary coach.
Fox's defense looked good last Sunday, holding Denver to 279 total yards and getting three sacks in a 30-10 victory. The Panthers surrendered averages of 33.0 points and 404.7 total yards in their previous three games.
If the defense performs as well as it did last week, the Panthers won't have to worry about any potential playoff scenarios.
"The key is to continue to try to get victories," Fox said. "We've got a very, very tough challenge ahead of us going to their place, to the defending world champions' house. Right now, that's about all we need to focus on."
Top Public Betting Trends:
All games in this series since 1992
CAROLINA is 3-1 against the spread versus NY GIANTS since 1992
CAROLINA is 3-1 straight up against NY GIANTS since 1992
3 of 4 games in this series have gone OVER THE TOTAL since 1992
Games over the last 3 seasons
NY GIANTS is 1-0 against the spread versus CAROLINA over the last 3 seasons
NY GIANTS is 1-0 straight up against CAROLINA over the last 3 seasons
1 of 1 games in this series have gone OVER THE TOTAL over the last 3 seasons
All games played at NY GIANTS since 1992
CAROLINA is 2-0 against the spread versus NY GIANTS since 1992
CAROLINA is 2-0 straight up against NY GIANTS since 1992
1 of 2 games in this series have gone OVER THE TOTAL since 1992
Key Player Injuries
[LB] Adam Seward missed last game, "?" - Ankle - 12/14/08
[WR] Ryne Robinson IR - Knee - 10/08/08
[LB] Dan Connor IR - Knee - 09/22/08
[DE] Hilee Taylor missed last game, "?" - Calf - 12/14/08
[DE] Osi Umenyiora IR - Knee - 08/26/08
[OG] Rich Seubert left last game, "?" - Flu - 12/15/08
(!) [WR] Plaxico Burress is expected to miss the rest of the season. - Suspension - 12/02/08
[LB] Jonathan Goff missed last game %27?%27 - Hamstring - 12/14/08
(!) [RB] Brandon Jacobs missed last game %27?%27 - Knee - 12/14/08
[WR] David Tyree IR - Knee - 11/05/08
[G] Shane Olivea IR - Back - 08/14/08
[S] Sammy Knight IR - Hip - 11/29/08
[OT] Kareem McKenzie injured last game, "?" - Back - 12/15/08
[CB] Kevin Dockery is out indefinitely - Back - 10/28/08
Posted: 12/17/08 9:13PM ET