by Mike Hayes - 01/04/2006
When the Giants play host to the Carolina Panthers in the opening round of NFL playoff action Sunday, Tiki Barber and the Giant running game -- one of the best in the NFL -- will face their toughest test of the year against the stingy Panther defense.
The game marks the Giants first trip to the playoffs since 2002 while the Panthers are back after a one-year hiatus, having last lost to the Patriots 32-29 in Super Bowl XXXVIII.
Kickoff is scheduled for 1 p.m. EST in a game that will be televised on FOX.
New York finished the season at 11-5, capturing the East Division title and with it the fourth-seed in the NFC playoffs, a key for the Giants as it guaranteed at least one game at the Meadowlands where they were 7-1 during the regular season. This will be the Giants first home playoff game since a 41-0 blowout of the Vikings in the 2001 NFC Championship game.
The Panthers also finished at 11-5, but lost a tiebreaker with South Division winner Tampa Bay and as a result earned a fifth-seeded wild card berth.
The Giants, whose only home loss came at the hands of the Vikings in November, have been made a 2.5 to 3-point favorite in this game with a point total set at 43.5.
The Panthers entered the final week of the regular season in need of a win to guarantee a playoff spot and they responded impressively with a 44-11 pasting of the Atlanta Falcons.
The Giants who backed into the playoffs after a week 17 loss to the Redskins needed a victory in the season finale to secure the division title and a home game and they too responded, beating the Raiders in Oakland, 30-21.
As a result, both teams enter the game off wins and have identical 8-4 records against conference opponents. The Panthers actually were a game better at home with a 6-2 mark compared to 5-3 on the road.
As they have all year, the Giants will look to use a potent running attack fueled by MVP candidate Barber, who rushed for 1,860 yards, good enough for second in the NFC behind Seattle's Shaun Alexander. His success helped take pressure off Eli Manning, the second-year QB who enjoyed a break out season of sorts for Big Blue.
While Manning's play has been sporadic, he has proven he can throw and more importantly win, as he led the Giants to the East Division crown a year after a disappointing rookie season that ended with the Giants losing 8-of-9 en route to a 6-10 mark.
The second-year pro was good on just 53 percent of his pass attempts but did total 3,762 passing yards, the fifth best total in the league. He tossed 24 touchdowns and was picked off 17 teams, good for a QB rating of 75.9 -- 10th best in the NFC.
The strength of the Panther offense is its passing game, where Jake Delhomme has also proven he can win. This could pose problems for the Giants, who ranked second-to-last in the NFC in pass defense, allowing more than 220 yards a game.
In Delhomme the Panthers have a solid QB who finished the regular season as the NFC's fourth-rated signal caller. Delhomme completed 60 percent of his passes for 3,421 yards with 24 touchdowns and 16 picks.
In addition, Delhomme has the experience of having been within a field-goal of the Patriots in the Super Bowl just two years ago.
Delhomme's favorite target is Steve Smith, who led the NFC in receiving yards with 1,563, good for better than 15-yards-per catch. The Carolina ground game, led by DeShaun Foster, is ranked among the bottom half of teams in the conference which could prove tough for the Panthers as the Giants are solid against the run.
The Giants will look to use Barber on the ground and out of the backfield to help open up the downfield passing attack, with tight end Jeremy Shockey -- 65 catches 891 yards -- and deep threat Plaxico Burress, the Giants leading receiver with 76 grabs and more than 1,200 yards, as the primary targets.
The Giants and Panthers did not face each other in the regular season but both did defeat the Cardinals and Saints. The Panthers beat the Vikings and lost to the Cowboys while the Giants split their season series with Dallas.
Both teams were 2-2 against playoff qualifiers, including an overtime loss by the Giants at Seattle.
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