By Steve Silverman
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The Giants have the most formidable of assignments this week — somehow defeat the undefeated Carolina Panthers.
As far as their opponents go, the visiting Panthers still need to do a bit more work to clinch homefield advantage throughout the NFC playoffs. Even if they beat the Giants on Sunday, they will still need one more win or one more Arizona loss to make sure all their postseason games are played in Charlotte.
But with the way they have been playing, it should not be a problem. They have an MVP candidate in quarterback Cam Newton and a Coach of the Year candidate in Ron Rivera.
The Giants are going to have to get the best of both of them if they are going to register the upset and end Carolina’s run at history.
Newton is not just a drop-back quarterback who is content to read the defense, survey the field and then distribute the ball. He is wrecking ball of a runner who creates havoc, either as part of a designed play or a scramble.
There are fears about any quarterback who runs with the football, but perhaps less so with Newton because he checks in at 6-foot-6 and 260 pounds.
The Giants have struggled to put pressure on opposing quarterbacks all season, let alone register sacks, and Newton and Rivera are probably feeling quite secure about facing the Big Blue defense.
Rivera will not take chances with his game plan. He is a conservative, old-school style coach who mostly wants to win with a running game, short passes and a hard-hitting, nasty defense.
Rivera becomes a different kind of coach on game days, as evidenced by his media-friendly nickname of “Riverboat Ron.” If he faces a fourth-and-1 at his own 45, he is going to go for it even if it’s the second quarter.
This is not the result of a reckless flaw in his personality. This is because he has confidence in Newton, his running backs and tight end Greg Olsen. He believes that his players are better than yours, and that’s why he is willing to take gambles.
Rivera is one of the top defensive minds in the game, ranking with Minnesota Vikings head coach Mike Zimmer (whom the Giants will see in Week 16) and New England Patriots defensive coordinator Matt Patricia. Rivera played linebacker for the Chicago Bears under head coach Mike Ditka and legendary defensive coordinator Buddy Ryan.
He later coached linebackers for the Eagles under defensive coordinator Jim Johnson, who was considered one of the greatest defensive minds of the 1990s.
Between Ryan, Johnson and Ditka, a big part of Rivera’s coaching philosophy was formed. Ditka, of course, had the passion that few have been able to match. While that aspect of coaching does not get the same kind of scrutiny as it once did, all coaches need the ability to rally their players.
Ryan was the coach who believed in attacking at all times. His 46 defense worked wonders for the famed 1985 Super Bowl champion Bears and later for the Eagles. Ryan knew how to game plan so that his pass rushers outnumbered the blockers protecting the quarterback.
Johnson understood the big picture better than nearly any defensive coach. He loved to attack, but he had plenty of alternatives when opponents figured out how to stop blitzing schemes like the 46. Johnson was always one step ahead of the competition.
Rivera earned his doctorate in defensive strategy, and he had been considered a leading head coaching candidate long before the Panthers hired him in 2011. He may have missed out on head coaching openings because of his defensive background, as some owners and general managers may have thought he didn’t have the offensive chops that were needed to win in the 21st century game.
But that has not been the case. He has built an offense that he knows would be difficult for any defense to stop.
Always with a ready smile, Rivera loves to be underestimated by his critics. He lives for that challenge, and after winning the Coach of the Year award in 2013, he is on track to win it again and also lead his team to the Super Bowl.
Obviously, Giants’ head coach Tom Coughlin has taken notice of all of that. This game is much more critical for his players. They need to find a way to win this game against a powerful team that refuses to make mistakes. It begins with holding Newton in check, but the quarterback will have plenty to say about that.
So will Rivera, who will give his team the chance to make plays that push the Giants to the wall, and hurt their playoff chances.
Follow Steve on Twitter at @ProFootballBoy