Dec 242008
 
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New York Giants 34 – Carolina Panthers 28 (OT)

By Joey in VA for BigBlueInteractive.com

Summary: 300.  A number, thanks to Frank Miller’s graphic novel turned movie, that is now most associated with Spartan King Leonidas and the legendary battle of Thermopylae.  For The New York Giants and their rabid fans, it is a number that drew a line in the sand and declared to the NFC, that the road to Super Bowl 43 will run through the Meadowlands.  It was the 300 yards (301 technically but that kills the metaphor and no one likes a dead metaphor) that your team amassed on the ground that sent the very dangerous Carolina Panthers home to lick their wounds, while the Giants began preparations to stand tall and defend their NFL Championship.

The electricity in an excited Giants Stadium came through loud and clear watching at home.  It was evident from the opening kickoff to Brandon Jacobs’ pile-moving game-winner in overtime, that the chance to claim home-field advantage throughout the playoffs was felt by everyone playing in, coaching or watching this game.  Both teams came out strong, with the Giants drawing first blood on a 32-yard field goal by Pro Bowl K John Carney.  Panther RB DeAngelo Williams responded though, with his first of four TDs with a 13-yard burst that put the Panthers up 7-3.  Back again came the Giants to take a 10-7 lead on a Brandon Jacobs 2-yard plunge, but the lead was short lived as the visiting Panthers would score TDs on their next two drives to take a 21-10 lead.  Finally waking up, the Giant defense forced the first punt of the night for the visitors, and gave the Giants good enough field position to march within field goal range in just 49 seconds and slice the lead to 21-13 at the half.

After surrendering 21 points and 208 yards on the Panthers’ first three drives, the Giants’ defense rose up and forced three straight punts while the offense clawed its way back from an 11-point hole.  A 12-play, 84-yard march spurred by Derrick Ward’s 22-yard dash and Eli Manning’s 4-yard TD pass to Kevin Boss brought the Giants to within one point at 21-20, a margin that would again grow to 8 points just three minutes later as DeAngelo Williams busted over right tackle for a 30-yard score, his fourth of the night.  Eli and the Giants came back again moving 44 yards in 7 plays and converting a two-point conversion to tie the game at 28 and force overtime after the Panther placekicker missed on a 50-yarder as regulation expired.

After trading three-and-out possessions, the Giants and Panthers stood deadlocked at 28 with just over 12 minutes to play in the extra stanza.  The march to 300 was then underway as Derrick Ward exploded for 82 yards on the ground in just three carries and Brandon Jacobs slammed home the game-winner from two yards out.  It was the ground assault that claimed the day, with the teams combining for seven rushing TDs and a staggering 459 yards rushing.  When the battle was over, the Giants stood alone atop the NFC playoff pile, ready to defend their title from home.

Quarterbacks: “And now, as then, it is not fear that grips him, only restlessness. A heightened sense of things.”  Eli Manning may not wow you on the stat sheet in a game like this one, but the Giant QB was sharp for most of the night with his passes and again came through in the clutch.  Finally adjusting to life without Plaxico Burress, Eli found his replacement Domenik Hixon on his first pass of the night, and followed that up by converting a 3rd-and-6 to Hixon four plays later.  On the play, Manning was able to side step some pressure, buy himself another second and find Hixon deep down the right sideline for a 40-yard gain that put the Giants at the Panther 18.  That was close enough for a John Carney FG that put the Giants up 3-0 on the game’s first drive.  Eli followed up 4-for-4 for 29 yards on the Giants’ next possession, including a perfect strike to Steve Smith on a critical 3rd-and-2 at the Panther 14.  On a night when points would be necessary, Eli came through when he had to and got the Giants in position for a 2-yard TD run to take a 10-3 lead.  Manning’s next two drives produced a whopping 16 yards as Eli went 2-for-4 for 10 yards and was sacked by LB Thomas Davis.  Eli closed out the half going 0-for-2 on the Giants’ final drive, but thanks to Derrick Ward’s 34-yard burst, the Giants were able to close the gap to 21-13.

The second half started out slowly as Manning misfired on a 3rd-and-5 and the Giants went three-and-out.  Curiously Hixon had CB Ken Lucas draped on him like a cheap suit, but shockingly no flags were thrown.  Down 21-13 still, Eli got the ball with plenty of time to play in the 3rd quarter and marched his team on a 12-play, 84-yard drive by going 6-for-6 for 53 yards and a TD pass to TE Kevin Boss to pull his team within one.  After another Panther TD, the Giants’ next possession went nowhere, as Manning was sacked twice and the Giants were again forced to punt.  Down 28-20 with just over 7 minutes to go, Eli was again perfect, going 3-for-3 for 40 yards, converting two big 3rd downs on passes to Amani Toomer and Kevin Boss.  On the completion to Toomer, Eli very alertly pump faked to hold CB Chris Gamble for the split second that Toomer needed to get some separation on his out route which turned into a 15-yard gain and a huge first down.  Following a big 3rd down completion to Kevin Boss, Eli’s next pass fell incomplete, but FINALLY a pass interference call was made and the Giants were in position at the 1-yard line to punch it in.  Still needing a two point conversion, Eli coolly found Hixon on quick in route and tied the game in what is becoming typical Eli Manning style.

Running Backs: “We did what we were trained to do, what we were bred to do, what we were born to do!”   That is, to run wild and carry the Giants to a first-round bye and home-field advantage.  Starter Brandon Jacobs piled up 87 yards on a tough 24 carries and no doubt got the Panthers’ best effort as he attacked the edges of the defense.  Despite a pedestrian 3.6 yard per carry average, it was Jacobs’ ability to run wide and threaten the defense laterally that ultimately enabled Ward to pop some big runs on a few isolation power runs later in the game.  Early on, Jacobs was corralled by the speedy Panther defense, and only managed 12 yards on his first 5 carries.  “The Jacobs Effect”, which is a physical property of the Giants’ offense that is not yet fully understood, did seem to be in play though as Jacobs next six carries went for 28 yards.  In fact, Jacobs had 11 of his 24 carries on the Giants’ first two drives of the night – a clear indication that Giants had every intention of running it all game long to wear down the Panthers.  Other than his three powerful TD runs, Jacobs’ best run of the night was a 10-yarder that was designed to go off-tackle, but Jacobs made two quick jump cuts inside and was able to crash ahead for a nice 10-yard gain that showed all of Jacobs’ abilities on one run.

A common reaction to the “The Jacobs Effect”, only known as “Ward’s Syndrome” began to take hold in the 2nd quarter.  Derrick Ward did what he was born to do, and in the process racked up an epic 215 yards on just 15 carries.  Ward’s first big run of the night came with the Giants down 21-10 with under two minutes to go in the half.  In a portent of things to come, Ward took a handoff from an offset position, following RG Chris Snee as he pulled left and exploded back up field for an outstanding 34-yard run to put the Giants within field goal range.  As the Giants drove to pull within a point in the 3rd quarter, Ward again ripped off a big run, this time galloping 22 yards over left end to move into Panther territory.  For the game, Ward had six runs of over 10 yards and four 20+ yard efforts.  His finest run of the night though was a 51-yard burst in overtime that was followed by runs of 14 and 17 yards that got the Giants down to the Panther 2-yard line and in position for the game winning score.

FB Madison Hedgecock had a busy day blocking and did well leading the way, but failed to get a yard on 3rd-and-1 on the Giants’ third possession of the game.  Hedgey was able to pick up 13 yards on a swing pass Manning on the Giants’ second TD scoring drive of the night.

Wide Receivers: “Submission? Well that’s a bit of a problem.”  Refusing to crumble in the wake of Plaxico Burress’ absence, Giant WRs stood and fought with the rest of their offensive mates, refusing to give in to the talk they weren’t good enough without their suspended teammate.  Domenik Hixon led the Giants again with 71 yards on four catches, including a 40-yarder in which he got behind the coverage on the Giants’ opening drive of the game.  Hixon failed to hang on to a Manning pass late in the first half after making a nice move to get inside of CB Chris Gamble, but evidently Gamble is permitted to hold one of Hixon’s arms as long as he gets up and acts like he made a great play.  Awful officiating on that non-call.  Steve Smith chipped in with three catches for 24 yards, all of which came on the Giants’ first TD drive of the night and all three went for first downs.  Smith again ran a great short out-route from the slot on 3rd-and-2 from the Panther 14 and his 7-yard reception again moved the chains.  Oddly, Smith didn’t point to his name on his jersey and didn’t act like a buffoon, which rules out the notion that anyone named Steve Smith must act like a 5-year old who just ate a box of Twinkies and hates his mommy.  Amani Toomer only had 27 yards on two catches, but one of which was a critical 3rd down conversion as the Giants drove to the tie the game at 28 late in the 4th quarter.

Tight Ends: In addition to his five catches, 46 yards and TD, Kevin Boss was outstanding blocking on the edge much of the night.  On Jacobs’ first TD run of the night, he stood up DE Tyler Brayton at the POA and allowed a nice lane for Jacobs to scoot through for the score.  Boss’ biggest contribution in the passing game came on the Giants’ second drive of the second half as he pulled in three passes for 19 yards and a TD.  It was Boss’ final catch of the night though, a 12-yard grab on a drag route on 3rd-and-5, that was his most important.  Boss also had a great moving lead-block on Ward’s 14-yarder on 3rd-and-7 in overtime.

O-Line: “In the end, a Spartan’s true strength is the warrior next to him.”  Moving as one cohesive unit all night long, the Giants’ front five on offense showed their true strength after being doubted by many after a handful of lowly performances.  After being stifled by the Eagles and sacked by the Cowboys, the Giants’ OL responded with a crushing performance in which they helped control the ball for 39 minutes and escorted Giant backs to 301 yards rushing and three TDs.  RT Kareem McKenzie gave up a sack to Tyler Brayton as the 4th quarter opened and LT David Diehl saw Julius Peppers blow by him on the same drive, effectively killing the possession, but this group rebounded in a big way after a dismal performance in Dallas.  Guards Chris Snee and Richie Seubert played their best games of the year, both pulling in tight quarters and leading the way on several of Derrick Ward’s big runs.  Snee blasted over the left side on Ward’s 34-yarder that set up a Giants’ field goal late in the first half, and Seubert cleared the way up the middle for Jacobs’ eventual game-tying TD late in the 4th quarter.  Seubert again led the way on the back breaking 51-yard run by Ward in overtime as he pulled right on a power lead play and blew the hole wide open for Derrick Ward.  C Shaun O’Hara also had a key block on the final Jacobs’ TD of regulation when he was able to blast through the DL and get a hat on Pro Bowl MLB Jon Beason and prevent him from making a stop.

Credit the guys up front on the Giants’ game tying 2-point conversion attempt, as they beautifully executed a play-action run in which Seubert pulled to lead, and Diehl crashed down on the DL, to give Eli a nice throwing lane inside.

Front 7: Author’s Note: Given the varied fronts and personnel packages the Giants use under Defensive Coordinator Steve Spagnuolo, I’ll be looking at the front 7 as a whole initially rather than separating the D-line and Linebackers.  Hybrid roles such as LBs playing in a 3 point stance make analyzing the front 7 as one unit more cohesive.  It may change as we move forward or from game to game.

“Unless I miss my guess, we’re in for one wild night.”  Indeed it was a wild night for the Giants’ defenders, who were pushed around to the tune of 21 points and 208 yards on just three Panther possessions to open the game.  Unable to get to Jake Delhomme all night, the defensive front was stymied in the pass rush department for most of the game and had loads of trouble controlling RB DeAngelo Williams.  DE Justin Tuck and DT Fred Robbins were shoved out of the way on Williams’ first TD of the game, a 13-yard burst right up the gut in which RT Jeff Otah crashed down on Robbins and TE Jeff King stuffed Tuck.  It is bad news when a TE is easily handling your Pro Bowl DE in the running game.  The Panthers then marched on a 10-play, 66-yard drive in which seemingly the entire front 7 decided to just take a short nap.  DE Mathias Kiwanuka and MLB Antonio Pierce got their chances to be blasted back when LT Jordan Gross and LG Travelle Wharton drove them five yards back as DeAngelo Williams scooted by for his second TD in as many tries inside the red zone.  The defense again gave Delhomme plenty of time on his next drive as the veteran signal caller hooked up with Muhshin Muhammad for a 60-yard gain.  The Panther QB simply had far too much time to throw on the play and the pass rush was invisible.  Following the lack of pass rush, the Giants’ front was again tossed aside by the Panther O-Line as DeAngelo Williams scored AGAIN from one yard out as Tuck, DT Barry Cofield and Kiwanuka were handled easily at the point-of-attack once again.

It took the wily vet Pierce to finally get the defense cranking on the Panthers’ fourth drive of the night as he sniffed out another screen to Smith and dumped him for a 2-yard loss.  Fellow LB Chase Blackburn made a great read on a screen to HB Jonathan Stewart and forced Delhomme into a bad pass that fell incomplete as the Panthers opened the second half on offense.  The entire front 7 played faster after their awful start and held the Panthers to three straight drives that ended in punts, until DeAngelo Williams again gashed the run defense for a 30-yard TD.  The DL would respond on their next effort after P Jeff Feagles pinned the Panthers at their own 1-yard line.  Justin Tuck was in on two stops, and DTs Fred Robbins and Barry Cofield got good push up the middle as the Panthers were forced to punt from their 5-yard line after three plays and only four yards gained.  On 3rd-and-8, it was Robbins and LB Danny Clark who shot into the backfield to blow up the play and keep the defensive momentum going.  With the game finally tied at 28 with three minutes left, the defense had to make one more stand to preserve a shot at overtime and it finally came through.  Carolina started with great field position at their own 38 but only managed 30 yards on 9 plays.  Pierce and Clark combined on a direct snap to RB DeAngelo Williams to not make the tackles, but sacrificed themselves to take out the lead blockers and allow Chase Blackburn and S James Butler to come up and limit the big play.  Pierce followed that up with a great run blitz from the back side to stop Williams again and force the Panthers into a 50-yard field goal attempt in the swirling winds of the Meadowlands which would sail wide left.

Defensive Backs: “Somebody’s gotta watch your back.” It was UGLY early on, but on the whole, the defensive backfield recovered well after a very shaky start and did a solid job defending the explosive Steve Smith and the rest of the Panther passing game.  Smith’s speed was on display early on a bubble screen in which S Michael Johnson read the play but badly underestimated Smith’s speed as he raced by for a 23-yard gain on Carolina’s first possession.  Johnson then failed to get enough depth when he did not sink on a Smith crossing-route and the Panther WR snuck behind him for his second big gainer of the night on a 35-yard reception on the same drive.  Credit the Panthers’ play design on that one, as Smith went in short motion inside of the slot receiver and the Giants’ best cover man, CB Corey Webster, switched off of him to stick with WR Mushin Muhammad on the outside of the coverage scheme.  Webster led the team with seven solo tackles, including dumping DeAngelo Williams for a 2-yard loss on the Panthers’ first scoring drive.  Webster had a great pass breakup early in the 3rd quarter as he reached around Muhammad and swatted the ball away, forcing a Panther punt.  Webster again came up huge just after the 2-minute warning, batting away a pass intended for Smith.  CB Aaron Ross bit badly on a stutter step by WR Muhsin Muhammad and was just out of position as a 60-yard completion sailed over his head on the Panthers’ third TD drive of the night.

Rookie CB Terrell Thomas nearly had an INT on the Panthers’ fourth drive, but nonetheless the rookie from USC alertly read a combination route from the slot and sank back far enough to break up the pass and FINALLY force a Panther punt as the first half wound down.  Johnson was critical in the 4th quarter, drawing a holding penalty on WR Steve Smith as he was dragged down to the turf, and then shooting in on a perfectly-timed run blitz to stuff Williams on the very next play.

Special Teams: Both the kickoff and punt coverage teams were solid, and Pro Bowl K John Carney was again perfect.  But it was P Jeff Feagles perfectly placed 37-yard punt in the 4th quarter that pinned the Panthers at their own 1-yard line, which put the special teamers in the spot light.  Backed up so deep, the Panthers were forced to run three straight times to no avail and the Giants ended up with a short 44 yards to go after the ensuing punt and were able to tie the game just seven plays later.  R.W. McQuarters fielded two punts, gained 10 yards, and almost created nearly 80,000 heart attacks when he muffed a punt deep in Giants’ territory in overtime.  Luckily the ball bounced right back to him, otherwise, he’d be banished to Philadelphia, where coughing up stuff in big games is an Eagle tradition.

Coaching: Offensive coordinator Kevin Gilbride and OL coach Pat Flaherty get the nod for this game.  Running power plays, counters and traps, from a shotgun formation that spread out the Panther defense, was what really opened up the game offensively for the Giants late in the first half.  That small wrinkle was enough to keep the Panthers on their heels, and give the Giants the spark they needed to get going again on offense after two failed drives.  When you run for 301 yards, you clearly found a hole in the defense and the coaches did an excellent job exploiting it.  The game’s big play, the oft-mentioned 51-yarder in OT by Ward, was nothing more than a power lead off right tackle in which LG Rich Seubert pulled to seal the edge.  As basic a football play as you’ll see, but the tiny of wrinkles of running from it from an offset I with a pulling guard made all the difference in the world.  Flaherty also employed LG Richie Seubert to chip inside on Panther RDE Julius Peppers who was held to one sack and was kept in check for most of the night.  By using Seubert to chip inside, Diehl was able to focus almost solely on Peppers’ speed rushes to the outside and Giant backs and TEs were not forced to stay in to pass protect that often.  Gilbride’s play design on the Giants’ 2-point conversion was fantastic as Eli faked an underneath handoff to RB Brandon Jacobs and LG Richie Seubert pulled right to force the LBs to commit to the stopping the run.  Once the middle was cleared out by the play action and Amani Toomer’s crossing route, Domenik Hixon slipped into the wide open space that was created and had an easy catch for the conversion.

The Panthers had the better of him early, but Defensive Coordinator Steve Spagnuolo dialed more pressure as the game went on and was able to get his guys in position to hold the Panthers to seven points in the second half and overtime.  Contrary to popular opinion, he did NOT lock up Corey Webster on WR Steve Smith, but stuck to playing inside/out coverage in two WR sets and played a safety high bracket on Smith when he was alone.

JPog (Joey’s Player of the Game) – With all apologies to LG Rich Seubert, I have to give the nod to RB Derrick Ward, who had a career night in the biggest game of the season.  Ward’s explosiveness in the hole enabled him to turn small gaps into big gains all night long and after the hammer of Jacobs, Ward’s explosion to the second level was a difficult thing for the Panther defenders to corral.  Ward’s 215 yards and 82 of it in overtime won the game for the Giants.  The defense made a few key stops and Eli Manning had some big time conversions but make no mistake, Derrick Ward’s big runs put the Giants in scoring position all night long.  For his effort, the super sub gets his very own throwback Lewis Tillman jersey, in a nod to other best backup RB the Giants ever had.

JBog (Joey’s Bum of the Game) – In the most important game of the year thus far, both teams laid it out all game long.  I refuse to name a bum in this game, because both teams played hard, played tough and played until the final whistle.  I considered Panther WR Steve Smith for his look-at-me antics, stupid holding penalty and even stupider face, but the dude can flat out play so he avoids the official JBoG but only by a thread.

(Box Score – Carolina Panthers at New York Giants, December 21, 2008)
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