By Paul Dottino
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So who, if anybody, is going to derail the Carolina Panthers’ plans of running the table this season?
It’s easy to see why most NFL analysts are giving the Giants the best chance of doing so, considering Carolina finishes out with Atlanta and Tampa Bay. After all, the Giants have what may be the most explosive connection in the league — Eli Manning to Odell Beckham Jr. — and have shown the ability to be in almost every game until the end, even when they fall short.
But the Panthers aren’t going to make it easy when they visit the Giants on Sunday. They subscribe to old-school football — they lean on a strong rushing attack, a powerful defense and fundamentals — and they don’t beat themselves. In other words, any team that’s going to knock them off is going to have to make big plays and execute at a very high level to do so.
Here are three key matchups to watch:
1. Giants WRs Odell Beckham Jr. and Dwayne Harris vs. Panthers CB Josh Norman and nickel CB Corland Finnegan
So much for Richard Sherman and Darrelle Revis, right? Norman is the flavor of the month as the league’s “best cover corner.” OK, so he’s virtually shut down several of the game’s most productive receivers, but is it time to crown him the top guy when he’s yet to face Beckham? The dynamic wideout will try to run his franchise-record streak of 100-yard games to seven. Norman usually does not shadow the other team’s best receiver into the slot, but it’s more than likely he will be glued to Beckham.
Regardless of how many times Manning targets Beckham, he’s got to maximize his production on the rare times when Beckham draws someone else in coverage. For example, he’ll need to take advantage of Finnegan, an aging veteran who retired in March but has returned to play the past two weeks. Attacking Finnegan — who is expected to draw Harris most often — should be a big part of the Giants’ game plan.
2. Giants RET Dwayne Harris vs. Panthers’ coverage teams
In short, Harris has become the Giants’ most explosive player not named Beckham, and he must have a big day in the return game. Maybe he doesn’t have to reach the end zone, but it sure wouldn’t be a bad idea. More importantly, the Giants need him to tilt the field so they can create momentum and prevent Carolina from dictating the pace and style of the game.
On the flip side, Panthers returner Ted Ginn Jr. has had slippery hands throughout his career — he often calls for a fair catch — so the Giants must do their best to create a special teams turnover when he keeps the ball alive.
3. Panthers QB Cam Newton vs. Giants’ front seven
We know all about how tight ends have riddled the Giants’ defense throughout the season, and yes, Greg Olsen is a Pro Bowl talent. But it’s far more important for the Giants is to contain Newton’s running, whether it be a planned run, a read option or him simply escaping the pocket to buy time or improvise.
The Panthers will be without Jonathan Stewart, third in the NFL rushing race (989 yards), so Newton may be more apt to take off despite having RB Fozzy Whittaker and/or FB Mike Tolbert in his backfield. The Giants cannot allow Newton to make big plays downfield, or convert third downs when he does.
PREDICTION: Panthers 30, Giants 23