The Carolina Panthers (13-0) may be undefeated, but there may be no team more perfectly equipped to handle a league titan than the Giants.
Despite losing to the then-unbeaten Patriots in Week 10, the Giants (6-7) showed their mettle by having a stranglehold on New England until the waning seconds. It was certainly good practice, as Big Blue once again battles a perfect team.
It’s almost becoming old hat for a Tom Coughlin-led team to have a chance of unseating the unbeaten. This may be their biggest test yet this season, though, as Carolina may be the most balanced team in the league. Led by a legitimate MVP candidate in quarterback Cam Newton, and an elite defense, the Panthers have embraced the undefeated challenge instead of running away from it for fear of jinxing it. They’re a confident lot, and it all starts with their passionate and feisty head coach Ron Rivera.
A former NFL linebacker for the Chicago Bears in the 1980s, Rivera knows a thing or two about playing under pressure for a team with perfect aspirations. He was on the famed 1985 Bears squad that started the season 12-0, en route to a 15-1 mark that carried them to a Super Bowl victory that season.
He’s embraced the challenge of trying to do it now as a coach, and his team has followed suit.
“I do draw from what [then-Bears] Coach [Mike] Ditka used to tell us [during Chicago’s 1985 run]. Some of the things that we went through when I was playing, I share with this team. It is an opportunity for me to fall back on things from personal experience,” Rivera said. “I explain with them to pretty much learn how to deal with success. Learn how to manage success and being prepared for the media ... Don’t be surprised about the questions that you get, [and] the scrutiny. As Coach Ditka used to always tell us, ‘They like to put you on a pedestal. But remember, that pedestal gets high, so it’s a long way to fall.’ I try to remind these guys to maintain their focus, to handle our success, and just be prepared.”
The Panthers have been as well-prepared a team as any in the league this season, as all three phases are outstanding. The Giants, on the other hand, have been an uneven squad all season.
But if one team is well-prepared enough to be giant killers, it’s Coughlin’s team.
RELATED LINK: Giants offense vs. Panthers defense key matchup Sunday
Metro takes a look at the key storylines to watch, as the perfect Panthers invade MetLife Stadium (1 p.m. FOX).
What to watch for:
1. Giant-killing Giants.
Coughlin and Co. have experience on their side in preparing for – and beating – unbeaten teams late in the season. No one who’s donning the blue and white on Sunday will go into this game in awe. And to a man, they’re preparing for this game as if it’s just another opponent, as they refuse to play to the hype. Quarterback Eli Manning noted that his preparation and focus this week isn’t on the perfect Panthers, but just preparing for a team that’s in their way, as Big Blue seeks to take over first place in the NFC East.
“You have a team that’s undefeated, there’s some excitement, and, the thought of, ‘Hey, can they finish the season undefeated? Can they be the team to go to the Super Bowl, be undefeated?’ There’s all that. But for us, we’ve got a game plan to learn, [and] we’ve got a scheme to learn from their part,” Manning said. “For us, this game is important because it affects our season. We’re playing for a playoff spot and we’re not really concerned with their situation. It’s more our situation that’s driving us.”
2. Can Big Blue’s uneven offense crack Carolina’s code on defense?
Apologies to the Patriots, but this Panthers squad will be the Giants’ toughest test this season. It’s not that Carolina is that much better than New England, but it’s because the Panthers are the most well-rounded team in the league. They can beat a team in all three phases, but their calling card is a ferocious and opportunistic defense. Carolina is in the top-nine of every meaningful statistical category. They’re fourth in points allowed (18.7); third in sacks (40) and yards allowed per game (307.8); tops in interceptions (21), takeaways (33), and turnover differential (plus-18); fifth in passing yards allowed per game (223.2); and second in yards allowed per play (4.7) and rushing yards allowed per game (84.6). Those are some daunting numbers, considering the Giants own the fourth-worst rushing yards per game totals, and are second-worst in average yards per rush -- and are considered by many to be a two-man offense of Manning to wideout Odell Beckham Jr. Big Blue will need more from its offense if they want to keep the Panthers’ defense off balanced.
3. Battle of the divas.
Usually meant as a derogatory term, this is actually a complement for two guys who know how to get a reaction, attention, and accolades. The battle between Beckham and Panthers’ cornerback Josh Norman will be must-see television, as they are arguably the best at what they do, and have no problem telling the world so. Both have been accused of being too mouthy for opponents’ taste, but when they can back it up so well – and make it look easy – it’d be difficult for anyone to show true modesty. Beckham, according to Rivera, is on the fast track to stardom – and a certain mustard-yellow colored jacket.
“Watching what he’s done in his first two seasons is tremendous. He really has an opportunity, I think, to be one of those guys you’ll talk about,” Rivera said, adding a comparison that might seem blasphemous to many. “He and Jerry Rice. I’ve had the great fortune of watching Jerry Rice, and, man, I see a lot of flashes. I played against Jerry as well, and I see a lot of flashes in Odell’s game … I just think he’s a tremendous football player.”
Rivera was also quick to pump up his own guy as well.
“I think Josh is a tremendous football player, and I think it’s going to be a marquee matchup. Both guys are going to bring a lot to the table. This is one of those matchups that you hope to see, and I think it’s going to be a good one for this game,” Rivera said. “I think Josh has done a great job. He’s playing at a very high level [and] I think he can be ranked right up there with that group of [top cover corners].”
Whichever star wins this highly anticipated battle within a battle will go a long way in determining a winner in the game.