Two teams with very different approaches meet Sunday in the Meadowlands, when the Carolina Panthers try to reach 14-0, while the New York Giants hope to build momentum after Monday’s win over Miami and stay in a jumbled NFC East title race. It’s quite a contrast, since the Panthers have been rolling through the season, and the Giants have been struggling to avoid being eliminated from playoff contention.
The Panthers’ magic number to clinch home-field advantage throughout the NFC playoffs is two, so even though Carolina has rolled to a 13-0 start, it is certainly not time to throw on the retro rockets and cruise home. The Giants, meanwhile, ended a three-game losing streak with the win over the Dolphins and are extremely fortunate that their 6-7 record keeps them still in play in the fetid NFC East.
Carolina at New York
Kickoff: 1 p.m. ET (Sunday)
Spread: Panthers -5
Three Things to Watch
1. Manning Up
Against Miami, Giants QB Eli Manning was a stout 27-of-31 for 337 yards, four scores and no interceptions. It was a great performance by the veteran, who has completed 63.8 percent of his passes this year for 3,655 yards, 28 TDs and 10 picks. But most importantly, it reversed an ugly trend that emerged during New York’s previous three games — all losses. During that stretch, Manning connected on a mediocre 52.7 percent of his throws and threw five TD passes, against four interceptions. If Manning can build on his performance in south Florida, the Giants have a shot. If not, New York is in big trouble.
2. Getting Defensive
So much has been made of the Carolina offense this season, and for good reason. Quarterback Cam Newton has been excellent, running back Jonathan Stewart (out Sunday with a foot injury) leads a strong ground attack, and Greg Olsen and Ted Ginn have been outstanding targets for Newton. The Panthers have averaged 39.0 points in their last four games. But the Carolina D deserves a little credit, too. The larcenous Panthers have picked off enemy passers 21 times, with safety Kurt Coleman’s seven leading the way. Linebacker Luke Kuechly has four interceptions, and cornerback Josh Norman has returned two of his thefts for touchdowns.
3. Mr. MVP
Tom Brady is great. Carson Palmer is having an outstanding year. But it’s tough for anyone to look past Newton for the MVP award. Those who point to his 59.1 percent completion rate don’t pay attention to his fourth quarter passing success, which is over 70 percent when the Panthers are behind and driving for a game-winning score. Newton is the heart of the NFL’s best team, and his ability to lead his teammates makes them feel as if anything is possible. Newton has thrown for 28 scores and run for a team-high seven more, making him the kind of dual threat no other team can boast. No other player in the NFL is as valuable to his team as is Newton.
The Panthers are hoping to keep their undefeated season alive and take another step toward spending their postseason at home. Their motivation is high, and their momentum is substantial. It’s hard to imagine them slipping up against a team as inconsistent as New York has been.
But the Giants are desperate. This game begins a tough three-game stretch that includes a trip to Minnesota next week and a visit from Philadelphia on Jan. 3. There is precious little margin for error for the Giants. But which team will show up Sunday? Is it the outfit that dropped three straight, or the team that looked sharp in the second half against the Dolphins? That’s the question and the reason it’s hard to pick New York.
Prediction: Panthers 27, Giants 23
— Written by Michael Bradley, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Bradley is a writer and broadcaster based in suburban Philadelphia. Follow him on Twitter @DailyHombre.