As the Carolina Panthers rumble into MetLife Stadium to play the New York Giants, there are enough plots and subplots to fill a playbook.
While the Giants have the pedigree and four Super Bowl titles, the undefeated and undaunted Panthers are the story.
Cam Newton has chaffed a few fans and fellow players with his spastic TD gestures. But we should ascribe to the ancient sports maxim – if you don’t like his end zone histrionics, keep him out of the end zone. And that’s been quite a task, as the Panthers are the NFL’s highest scoring team.
No one saw this coming. Not with Cam’s maturation seemingly far from complete. Not with young WR stud Kelvin Benjamin missing the season with an injury. Not with a cluster of castoffs playing in his place. Not with TE Greg Olsen on the back-nine of his career. It helps to have the second-ranked running game in the NFL (141.9 YPG), but this is Newton’s coming-out party.
The Panthers also have an ornery defense. Led by all-world LB Luke Kuechly, they are ranked in the top five in rushing (84.6) and passing (223.2) yards allowed per game. And though RB Jonathan Stewart is sitting this one out, the Panthers have all the ingredients to win out.
But the Giants have been here before, a Big Blue speed bump on the way to someone’s perfect season. Maybe most of these Giants weren’t around when they lost to the 15-0 Patriots, and then beat the 18-0 Patriots. The bull-rushing defensive line that haunted Tom Brady in two Super Bowls has been reduced to a one-handed Jason Pierre-Paul. But the core tandem of HC and QB are still in place.
In the NFC East – the newfound NFC Least – there’s a Frontier-Town chaos and brutality that finds no team at least .500 after 13 games, a most unholy trinity sitting atop the division.
While the Eagles, Redskins, and Giants joust for the top spot, the Giants clearly have the toughest task this weekend. The 13-0 Panthers don’t care about road games, believe in trap games, or feel the wind of history in their faces.
But the Giants have a way of putting a bookmark into an epic narrative. Not only because Eli Manning plays his best in the biggest games, but also because he’s got the best wideout in the sport.
Odell Beckham Jr. has taken a giant (or Giant, if you will) eraser to the record books. After 25 NFL games, Beckham has more catches (176) and yards (2,625) than anyone in NFL history, and is second in TD receptions. He’s already turned YouTube into his personal demo and, at 23, it’s frightening to realize he hasn’t come close to his apex.
If that weren’t enough to watch, Beckham will be covered by Josh Norman, the loquacious cornerback whom many think is the best in the game. Maybe Newton is the league’s best player, but Manning is having perhaps his best season.
The patron saint of the Meadowlands, Bill Parcells, long ago told us that you are what your record says you are. But the Giants are the quintessential “What If” team, having blown four games this season while leading with 60 seconds left.
When a 13-0 team plays a 6-7 team you tend to jam the PPV button to see what hot movies are up for rental. Don’t sleep on this game, or the Giants, who have slain a few giants just when you’ve counted them out.
Jason writes a weekly column for CBS Local Sports. He is a native New Yorker, sans the elitist sensibilities, and believes there’s a world west of the Hudson River. A Yankees devotee and Steelers groupie, he has been scouring the forest of fertile NYC sports sections since the 1970s. He has written over 500 columns for WFAN/CBS NY, and also worked as a freelance writer for Sports Illustrated and Newsday subsidiary amNew York. He made his bones as a boxing writer, occasionally covering fights in Las Vegas, Atlantic City, but mostly inside Madison Square Garden. Follow him on Twitter @JasonKeidel.