The difference between being 2-1 and 1-2 to start the season is huge, and that’s a big part of why today’s showdown between the Carolina Panthers and New York Giants is so important.
When you think about it, these two squads have a lot in common.
Both are considered to among the NFC’s upper echelon. Both lost their first games in mildly demoralizing fashion before bouncing back in Week 2. (Obviously the Giants bounced back in a slightly more dramatic way, but the same general idea applies.)
Both teams are going to be without some of their most important offensive pieces, putting increased pressure on their big-name, marquee quarterbacks. And, perhaps most importantly, both have huge groups of fans that will panic if their squad doesn’t emerge victorious tonight.
This isn’t a make or break game, however, in the day and age of overreacting to every single outing, it’ll still probably be viewed as one. With all that in mind, here are three things to watch for from each squad heading into tonight:
1. How does Cam Newton look? The Giants are going to be without some key players on offense, but the team’s defense is still its defense. Jason Pierre-Paul, Justin Tuck and Osi Umenyiora will do their very best to bug Newton, plain and simple. They haven’t been as successful in their efforts to get after passers this year (the latter two), however, it feels like their breakout is matter of when not if.
The way in which Newton responds to the pressure he’ll likely face may end up determining how the Panthers fare. If Newton can put up the same sort of 270-yard, one touchdown, no interception performance this week that he put up on the league’s worst defense last week, Carolina is going to be in very good position to walk out of here 2-1. If not...
2. Can Steve Smith do it again? Two games, two 100+ yard outbursts for the Panthers’ 33-year-old star receiver. It goes without saying that the Giants’ secondary is as questionable as they come and extremely susceptible to giving up big plays. If Smith is right heading into this one, he might end up making Cam Newton’s life a lot easier tonight.
3. Can the defense bottle up Victor Cruz? We’ll analyze Cruz’s production below, however, obviously because of all of the Giants’ injuries, he’ll be the offense’s main weapon in this one. If Carolina can find a way to bottle him up (easier said than done) and force New York to rely more heavily on the running game, they’ll take their chances with that strategy all day every day.
New York Giants
1. How does Eli Manning look? It took a herculean second-half effort from Manning to secure victory for his side last week – will he be worn down from it today? Everyone loved the 510-yard portion of his Week 2 stat line, but the “51 attempts” part of it was far more important.
Missing weapons on offense is only going to make Manning's already tough job even tougher. Jon Beason’s health status is up in the air right now, however, if Manning plans on throwing three picks in the first half again, Beason doesn’t really need to be at one hundred percent to take advantage of that type of performance.
2. Can Victor Cruz make big plays? With Hakeem Nicks out, the Giants are going to need Victor Cruz to pick his moments. The Panthers defense is going to be draped all over him (probably) daring the New York rushing attack to beat them, so Cruz will have to take advantage of his opportunities whenever they come.
Last week he had 179 yards and a score on 11 receptions. As unfair as it is to demand that sort of showing on a weekly basis, he’ll need something like that again this week if the Giants hope to get out of this one with a win.
3. Will one of the running backs step up? Andre Brown came out of nowhere last week to rack up 71 yards and a score on 13 carries. David Wilson, New York’s first round draft pick, had a cool six yards on three carries. Couple Wilson’s ineffectiveness with his apparent inability to keep the ball safe and that seems like a recipe for a ton of Andre Brown in this one. Can he replicate last week’s success? We’ll find out soon enough.