The Carolina Panthers are coming off of a 35-27 victory over the New Orleans Saints on Sunday, but another tough test awaits them tonight at 8:20 p.m. ET on Thursday Night Football against the New York Giants; the defending Super Bowl champions. The Panthers will be at home facing a 1-1 Giants team that bounced back from a loss against the Dallas Cowboys to open the season by beating the Tampa Bay Buccaneers 41-34 on Sunday.
The Panthers won’t just be looking to keep it close like the Bucs; they’ll be looking to win and show NFL fans across the nation that the Panthers are indeed a team to watch for in the present- not just the future.
The Giants will be playing without wide receivers Hakeem Nicks and Domenik Hixon, as well as right tackle David Diehl and running back Ahmad Bradshaw. Without Bradshaw, the Giants will turn to Virginia Tech rookie David Wilson and former Panther Andre Brown who broke out with 13 carries for 71 yards against the Bucs.
While Steve Smith is expected to suit up for the Panthers, right tackle Byron Bell and running back Jonathan Stewart are game-time decisions. Special teams star Colin Jones and stalwart LB Thomas Davis are listed as questionable as well. There is a better chance that Bell will play than Stewart, as the short week has hurt Stewart’s ability to return from his toe and ankle injuries that are related.
Panthers Offense vs. Giants Defense
The Carolina Panthers have arguably the best downfield passing attack in the NFL with Cam Newton leading the way with Steve Smith and Brandon LaFell at his disposal. Both receivers have been doing an incredible job of getting downfield and making plays this season, and they should be able to continue that trend against the Giants tonight.
Corey Webster will likely shadow Smith, who is expected to play through knee pain. LaFell will be up against second-year CB Prince Amukamara, who is nicked up with an ankle injury. While safety Kenny Phillips is one of the best in the business in terms of coverage, free safety Antrel Rolle isn’t. Rolle is a good safety against the run, but he struggles more often than not in coverage and is prone to getting burned over the top. The Giants secondary is one that is prone to getting burned, which will play into the strengths of the Panthers passing attack.
Even if Jonathan Stewart is unable to play, DeAngelo Williams, Mike Tolbert, and Newton will spearhead a solid Panthers running attack against the Giants front seven. Justin Tuck and Mathias Kiwanuka play shutdown defense on the right side, which could be a problem for the Panthers if right tackle Byron Bell doesn’t play. He had a rough 2011 season, but he has looked very good in 2012 thus far. If he is out, it will be up to right tackle Bruce Campbell to have a breakout performance of his own after being brought to Charlotte in the Mike Goodson trade with the Oakland Raiders.
The Panthers running game should still be solid, but they will find it tougher against the Giants if one of either Stewart or Bell doesn’t play (chances are one of them will be out).
As far as pass protection goes, it will be interesting to see how Bell/Campbell and star veteran Jordan Gross fare out against Jason Pierre-Paul, Justin Tuck, and Osi Umenyiora. That’s as good of a trio as you’re going to see in the NFL today, but Gross has the ability to hang with JPP. The problem is at right tackle, where the Panthers could be exposed if Bell is out and Campbell doesn’t step up. Even if Bell plays, the Giants will still win that matchup with Bell not fully healthy and going up against a premier pass rusher on top of that. This puts Campbell into a very difficult situation.
Giants Offense vs. Panthers Defense
With Nicks and Hixon out, the focus turns to slot receiver Victor Cruz more than ever now. I want to see how the Panthers try and scheme against Cruz, who is easily the best, healthy receiver on the Giants at this point. Do they keep Captain Munnerlyn on him in the slot or do they turn to Chris Gamble? Munnerlyn has been struggling lately, while Gamble is still going strong as one of the premier shutdown corners in the league.
On the outside, Eli Manning will be targeting Ramses Barden, as well as rookie receiver Rueben Randle. However, I would definitely expect more passes heading into Martellus Bennett’s direction, despite him being more of a blocking tight end. Bennett is going to command the attention of James Anderson, who is certainly a more than adequate coverage linebacker. We’ll see how often Manning looks at his TE in relation to his two wide receivers pressed into starting duty due to the injuries to Hixon and Nicks.
The running game will suffer without Bradshaw, but Wilson is an electrifying rusher with the ability to break one big at any moment. Brown is a more of an unknown at this point, and I don’t even know if I’m willing to give an evaluation. But here’s the thing, he has the hot hand and should be able to turn in another solid performance. The Panthers run defense will be worse off if Davis doesn’t play, but the Panthers have always been strong at linebacker and should be able to contain both rushers- although I am worried about the possibility of a big game for Wilson.
The Giants offensive line will be without Diehl, who is, in all honesty, a vastly declining player who gets overrated by those who think he is even an average player at this stage in his career. Sean Locklear isn’t a world-beater at right tackle, but I actually think he’s a decent backup. Frank Alexander looked good against the Saints, so let’s see what he and Greg Hardy can do tonight. Meanwhile, Charles Johnson should have a clear advantage over Giants LT Will Beatty, and I think Manning will be dealing with some solid pressure from Carolina for the majority of the game.
At this point, both offenses hold advantages over the defenses they are facing, but I honestly think the Panthers are in a better position to win this game. I wouldn’t call a Panthers win an upset, but it would be a surprise to a national audience expecting a win for the Super Bowl champs. They are dealing with a few key injuries, and I’m not sold on their pass defense’s ability to contain both LaFell and Smith deep. Either way, this game is going to be incredibly close, but I think the Panthers can pull it out 33-30. It might even take overtime.
I’m excited, this game is going to be incredible to watch.
You can follow Joe Soriano on Twitter @SorianoJoe.