Panthers, Giants battle for top seed

Posted: Thursday, December 18, 2008

Tanking this game wouldn't be such a bad concept for the New York Giants.

Home-field advantage is overrated anyway, isn't it?


But you won't hear members of the Giants crying should they lose Sunday night's game against the red-hot Carolina Panthers with the top seed in the NFC playoffs on the line.


Exhibit A -- The 2007 edition of the New York Giants.

That bunch proved playing away from home isn't such a terrible thing after all, as they finished the season 11-1 on the road, including three straight playoff victories before winning the Super Bowl in Arizona.

If anybody needs to be playing at home, it's the 2008 Panthers, who completed an 8-0 campaign at Bank of America Stadium last week with an impressive 30-10 win over Denver, their third straight victory.

On the road, though, Carolina is a pedestrian 3-3.

And even though the Giants have dropped two straight, including a 20-14 home setback to Philadelphia two weeks ago, and the Panthers have won seven of eight, both teams are precisely where they want to be.

"Can you imagine being this time of year, being 11-3 and playing at home for the chance to have a first-round bye and play at home throughout the playoffs?," asked New York coach Tom Coughlin. "Think about that; just think about it a minute. If you can't be excited about this, I'm not sure what the heck you can be excited about."

It's tough to find excitement around New York these days, with Plaxico Burress' season coming to an end after a self-inflicted gunshot wound to the leg and the current skid, without a doubt due in part to his absence. The Jets are struggling, too, coming within two minutes of a three-game losing streak last week that may have cost them a postseason berth until Buffalo coach Dick Jauron and QB J.P. Losman handed them the game.

There's a bit more buzz around Carolina's clubhouse.

Steve Smith is finally healthy and playing the role of himself and not the Giants' version of Steve Smith.

The defense, with all 11 starters having started all 14 games this season, is back in 2003 form when it helped carry the Panthers to the Super Bowl.

And then there's Smash and Dash, better known as DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart.

Anyone who hasn't watched this talented tandem of toters dance their way through opposing defenses, tune into NBC on Sunday for a taste of what's to come.

First, Smash.

Williams, the Panthers 2006 first-round pick out of Memphis, where he quietly became the NCAA's all-time leader in all-purpose yards (7,573), had a challenging first two seasons in Carolina running behind DeShaun Foster, totaling 1,218 yards and only five touchdowns.

Sharing the load with Stewart this year, the former Heisman Trophy candidate has amassed 1,229 yards and 14 touchdowns, barely missing out on a Pro Bowl spot to Adrian Peterson, Michael Turner and Clinton Portis, selections nobody can argue.

But averaging 5.5 yards per carry, the best of any back in the league with at least 100 carries, is also difficult to debate.

Now onto Dash.

Drafted 13th overall out of Oregon last year, and a savvy pick for my fantasy squad this year, Stewart has rushed for 751 yards and nine touchdowns in adding yet another successful split-carry system to an NFL already fraught with them.

While they've been flying under the radar all year, their nationally televised debut two weeks ago on Monday Night Football was a smashing hit, when Carolina's two-headed monster totaled a team-record 299 yards on the ground, Williams recording a career-high 186 and Stewart 115, and two touchdowns apiece in propelling the Panthers to first place in the competitive NFC South, a spot they hold entering this showdown in the Big Apple -- or Jersey, wherever they play.

"Those guys are that good," said Bucs coach Jon Gruden, whose fourth-ranked defense had previously allowed just one rushing touchdown all season. "Those guys are going to make guys miss. Both of them."

Now they have an opportunity to shred the Giants' fourth-ranked run defense on another national stage.

It may not be home. But if the Panthers can muster a win on the road this week, it'll be home, sweet home when it counts the most.

Until maybe the Super Bowl. In that case, though, both teams will be far from home. PANTHERS, 31-27.


Indianapolis (minus 6) at Jacksonville

Tough to go against Peyton with a seven-game winning streak and a playoff berth on the line. Want to. But can't. COLTS, 24-21.


Baltimore (plus 4) at Dallas

Tony Romo has the Cowboys back in the thick of the playoff hunt. COWBOYS, 21-13.


Cincinnati (plus 1 1/2) at Cleveland

Somebody has to win. Wait, the Bengals already tied this year. BROWNS, 17-14.

New Orleans (minus 7) at Detroit

Who's wearing the bags on their heads now? SAINTS, 35-27.

Miami (minus 4) at Kansas City

The Dolphins are 3-6 all-time when it is 25 degrees or colder. CHIEFS, 27-24.

Arizona (plus 8) at New England

The NFC West champion Cardinals can't play in cold weather, either. PATRIOTS, 37-24.

San Francisco (minus 5 1/2) at St. Louis

Battle of interim head coaches. Mike Singletary should return next season. Jim Haslett, well, not so much. 49ERS, 27-13.

Pittsburgh (minus 1 1/2) at Tennessee

Line opened with Tennessee favored by one. Then the news that Albert Haynesworth was out with an injury dropped it. Home-field advantage in playoffs could be on the line. STEELERS, 24-23.

San Diego (plus 3) at Tampa Bay

Thank God for NBC's flex scheduling. CHARGERS, 24-21.

Buffalo (plus 7) at Denver

Denver clinches AFC West. BRONCOS, 30-27.

Houston (minus 7 1/2) at Oakland

Texans make it five straight.

TEXANS, 45-20.

N.Y. Jets (minus 5) at Seattle

Mike Holmgren leaves Seattle a winner. SEAHAWKS, 28-24.

Atlanta (plus 3 1/2) at Minnesota

Two Pro Bowl running backs squaring off. Falcons QB Matt Ryan, who was snubbed, is the difference. FALCONS, 27-24.

Philadelphia (minus 5) at Washington

The self-proclaimed "worst coach in America" leads his team to a surprising win. REDSKINS, 24-20.


Green Bay (plus 4) at Chicago

Another Pro-Bowl snub, Bears RB Matt Forte continues his strong rookie campaign. BEARS, 33-28.

LAST WEEK: 11-2-1 (spread); 12-4 (straight up)

SEASON: 106-105-6 (spread); 127-96 (straight up)

Comments and criticisms may be sent to Clarion sports reporter Matthew Carroll at

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