EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. – The Giants have proven they can compete with the NFL's best teams. But to keep pace in the NFC East race and bolster their chance to be postseason participants, they must beat one.
They will get that chance tomorrow, when the 13-0 Carolina Panthers visit MetLife Stadium. It's the Giants' second opportunity to host a team that has multiple victories without a loss. On Nov. 15, they lost on the same field to the New England Patriots, who arrived with an 8-0 record and left with a 27-26 victory and their perfect record intact, thanks to a last-second, 54-yard field goal. Now here come the Panthers, who have already clinched a first-round playoff bye – but not home-field advantage throughout the postseason – and hope to join the 2007 Patriots as the only teams to finish 16-0.
The Giants' position isn't quite as advantageous. They are 6-7 and tied for first place in the division with Philadelphia and Washington. But they are in the hunt, coming off a victory in Miami on Monday night, and are still within reach of their goals, notably to finish the season atop the NFC East.
"It's an exciting time for us," coach Tom Coughlin said. "We are in the hunt here in the NFC East. This is a very, very good football team, an undefeated football team. We are excited to host them this weekend."
Keep an eye on these five players as the Giants face the Carolina Panthers this Sunday
This is the sixth time in their 91-year history the Giants will face a team that is 10-0 or better in the regular season. They are 1-4 in those games. In 1998, they defeated the 13-0, defending Super Bowl champion Denver Broncos, 20-16, on a 37-yard touchdown pass from Kent Graham to Amani Toomer with 48 seconds remaining. The Giants lost to the 10-0 Cleveland Browns in 1953, the 12-0 Miami Dolphins in 1972, the 15-0 Patriots in 2007 and the 11-0 Green Bay Packers in 2011.
The Giants have twice won championships with victories over undefeated teams, beating the 13-0 Chicago Bears in 1934 and the 18-0 Patriots in Super Bowl XLII.
Of course, all this is understandably ancient history to the current Giants. But they do concede it's a special challenge to play a December game against a team with a zero on the right side of its record.
"You don't see that much," said defensive lineman Cullen Jenkins. "We have to pride ourselves on feeling like we can play and compete with anybody in this league. We have, for the most part. We had a chance to win every game that we've been in at the end, except for the Philadelphia game (a 27-7 loss). For us, we just have to go in and know that it's going to be a game, it's going to be a physical game, but it's going to be a game that we can also win if we do what we're supposed to do."
"They're a good team," said quarterback Eli Manning. "Offense is scoring a lot of points, their defense is not letting teams score a lot of points. They've got a lot of good players, good scheme. We've got to find a way to make some plays."
The Panthers will present the Giants with numerous challenges. They are the NFL's highest-scoring team, with an average of 31.6 points a game. Carolina is the league's second-best rushing team at 141.9 yards a game. Leading ground-gainer Jonathan Stewart will miss the game with a foot injury, but they still have plenty of weapons, notably tight end Greg Olsen and wide receiver Ted Ginn Jr. But the best and brightest of them is quarterback Cam Newton, who is widely expected to win the league's Most Valuable Player award. Newton has been responsible for 35 touchdowns (28 passing, seven rushing), an indication he gashes teams with both his arm and legs.
"He's a big, strong guy," defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo said. "He makes all of the throws. And they do a really good job, I think, of protecting. They'll keep however many guys they need in. Where I think they've really progressed … he sees things, he may change protection, he gets them in a favorable play. I think they do a lot more of that, checking at the line, than they had in previous seasons."
Newton is 6-5 and 245 pounds, so when he takes off and runs, he's as difficult to stop as a pickup truck.
"I think as a linebacker, you have to embrace that challenge," middle linebacker Jasper Brinkley said. "Cam is an unbelievable talent. Just look at him. He has great height, great size, and great speed to go along with it. You can tell it's paying off for him. He's definitely in the film room, as you can see, he breaks down defenses like night and day. It's unbelievable some of the things he can do."
Defensively, the Panthers top the NFL in both sacks (40) and interceptions (21) and are ranked second overall and fourth against the run. Sixteen different Carolina players have at least one sack, and Luke Kuechly and Thomas Davis (206 total tackles between them) might be the NFL's best linebacker tandem.
"They're a great team, they beat a lot of great teams, and you can see on film the things that they do well as far as being able to win the games," wide receiver Odell Beckham Jr. said. "(We are) trying to find your best places to attack and go from there."
"They're a talented front and they have some depth, they have some big bodies, some wide bodies," offensive coordinator Ben McAdoo said. "They have a variety of guys to get to the quarterback, and in a variety of ways. They do a nice job in coverage, so you have to hold the ball a little longer than you would versus a normal opponent. But I really think what separates this defense from a lot of defenses in the league is they have three linebackers (including rookie Shaq Thompson) plus who are instinctive, who can play with speed and physicality, and they can cover. They can rush and they can cover and they can do it in a variety of ways, so they're very skilled there."
The Giants must overcome all of Carolina's strengths and find a way to win, because they can't afford a loss in a tight race this late in the season.
"We know the sky is the limit for us," Jenkins said. "We can compete and we can play with anyone, but it's just a matter of finishing. Everybody has to take on the challenge mentally, physically, and we can't make mistakes, and we can't beat ourselves."
That's a must against their latest undefeated opponent.