By Paul Dottino

EAST RUTHERFORD – Forget the hoopla surrounding the first regular season game at New Meadowlands Stadium – this game means much more to the Giants than simply beginning the latest chapter in franchise history.

The Giants are seeking respect in their season opener Sunday against the Carolina Panthers. Respect that was lost in the 41-9 drubbing the Panthers put on them last December to close Big Blue’s tenure at Giants Stadium. Respect that was lost as a miserable season got worse and worse and … well, you remember. So do the Giants. And that’s the point.

If the Giants are going to be playoff contenders, they immediately need to show the results of their off-season tweaks to the coaching staff and roster – moves that were not only meant to help the product on the field but to enhance the leadership in the locker room as well. Tom Coughlin believes the players have heard his message about re-establishing the team’s identity. There is no better time to show it than opening day against an opponent that prefers to turn the game into a demolition derby.
Here are three key matchups to watch:

1- Giants’ defensive coordinator Perry Fewell vs. Panthers’ power running game. Fewell said he unleashed “10 percent, maybe 20 percent” of his scheme during the preseason. And most of that was of the vanilla variety. So it’s anybody’s guess as to what we’ll see on Sunday, given that he’s shown multiple alignments in practice that feature three defensive tackles or four defensive ends or stand-up ends or linebackers filling the gaps along the front four.

The only thing we know for sure about Fewell is that he approaches defense in an aggressive mode that forces opponents to be patient and tries to bait them into turnovers. “I’m going to be offensive, and I’m going to try and dictate what they will see,” he said. The Panthers, under coach John Fox, always have been a run-first team and feature the 1-2 punch of DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart – both of whom are difficult to tackle on the first hit. Stewart ripped the Giants for the first 200-yard rushing game in Carolina history last December.

2- Giants’ punt team. There is no matchup here – it’s all on the Giants themselves. Rookie punter Matt Dodge has been inconsistent throughout the preseason and the coverage teams were far worse. Enter special teams captain Chase Blackburn, who missed the final three preseason games with a sprained knee – he doesn’t play gunner, but he’s often one of the first coverage men to get to the ball and make the hit.

In addition, Gerris Wilkinson developed into a solid special teams player last season and will be expected to provide speed and physical play to the unit, now that he’s able to play following a strained groin. It doesn’t matter who the Panthers send back to field punts if Dodge cannot deliver what’s asked of him and the rest of his unit doesn’t get down there to cover his kicks.

3- Panthers WR Steve Smith vs. Giants RCB Terrell Thomas. Smith is as physical, wily and trash-talking a receiver as you will find in the league. And he’s always putting up Pro Bowl-type numbers even though he’s usually the Panthers’ only dynamic receiving threat. How does he do it? Simple. He plays with a chip on his shoulder that drives him into beating his man or the double-team that might be sent his way. He finds ways to get open, thus elongating drives and allowing the running game to do its damage. Every once in a while, he gets frustrated and becomes a sourpuss.

Thomas will be in position to stop Smith and help the Giants get off the field on third down. He was the Giants’ defensive MVP last season and, if there’s one thing he’s got to improve on it would be his tackling. It’s great to be in position, but a missed tackle often results in a first down.

PREDICTION: Giants 21, Panthers 16.

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