What We Learned: Panthers-Giants

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1. Disregard what you saw the past few weeks; the Giants can still pound the rock. It's hard to figure out Tom Coughlin's approach to his team's running game, but here's my best take: The Giants can run the ball whenever they damn please. They just haven't cared enough to try lately. What better way to explain Coughlin's recently frugal use of Brandon Jacobs and the team's miserable play without him?

On Sunday night, Coughlin got back to basics. On the second drive of the game, trailing 7-3, he called on his backs on 10 of 13 plays and was rewarded with 50 hard-fought yards from Jacobs and Derrick Ward. The first-quarter march marked the first time since the fourth quarter of a Nov. 16 tilt against Baltimore that Coughlin got more than 45 yards out of his backs -- passing and running combined -- in one drive.

And it wouldn't end there. Coughlin called for 41 running plays against 27 passes and got seven runs of 14 yards or more on a night where Giants backs combined for a whopping 301 yards, making it the NFL's third-best team rushing performance of the year and the best by the Giants in the modern era.

Afterward, Giants safety Michael Johnson said of the bounce back performance, "[the backs] had a slow going of it the last two games, but tonight they really took off and did what they're capable of doing. This is the offense we are used to seeing." True. But Carolina's run defense is part of the equation, too, which gets us to ...

2. Remember the name Ma'ake Kemoeatu. His bum right ankle just cost Carolina the NFC's top playoff seed, perhaps even the division title. Entering Sunday the Panthers had gone an astounding 14 straight games without losing a single defensive player to injury. Now, no one's comparing the '08 Panthers to the '85 Bears, but that's an amazing streak and it lent Carolina the type of fluidity that can build confidence on any team; thus the Panthers woke up Sunday morning ranked 11th overall in defense.

But that all went out the window when their starting left defensive tackle, Kemoeatu (pronounced key-moy-AH-too), rolled his ankle against Denver last Sunday, making him Carolina's first defensive casualty of the season. He didn't practice all week and on Sunday he was listed as questionable. Sure enough, come kickoff the 345-pounder was sporting XXXL sweatpants, a gray parka and a knit cap on the sideline.

Before Sunday no one could have imagined how dearly the native of Pule'anga Fakatu'i'o, Tonga would be missed. He'd accumulated just 36 tackles this season and he'd gone 41 straight starts without a sack, dating back to the last game of '05. But when Jacobs bowled into the end zone for his overtime-ending third touchdown of the game, one thing was clear: Carolina's defense was missing some teeth. That void extended to defensive tackle Damione Lewis, who was in and out with a shoulder injury in the fourth quarter and was missing on the last drive.

Instead of their regular 14-game starters, the Panthers played the majority of the second half with two reserves, including pass rusher extraordinaire Darwin Walker, who wouldn't know what to do with a running back if one bit him in the butt. And it showed. After the game, both Coughlin and Eli Manning credited the win to the Giants' offensive line.

Carolina entered Week 15 having allowed 111.5 yards per game on the ground before, 18th in the league. And on Sunday night, without their top two guys in the middle, they gave up 194 in the second half alone. With power running teams like Minnesota and Atlanta lurking ahead in the playoffs, there's suddenly reason for concern on what has been a steady Carolina defense.

3. And now the bad news: As the Giants pass rush dies a slow, slow death, so goes their pass coverage. Lost in all the excitement at the Meadowlands on Sunday was the simple fact that New York's defense is playing some pretty sorry football across the board, beginning with a neutered pass rush and ending with some terrible tackling by their linebackers, Antonio Pierce still being the biggest offender. (See DeAngelo Williams' first two touchdowns.) The sorry state of their dwindling pass rush, which is averaging just over a sack per game during the last three games after starting the season with 13 in three, was on full display late in the second quarter when Jake Delhomme had enough time to lob a deep ball down the right sideline to Muhsin Muhammad. Given the extra time, Muhammad fought himself free behind cornerback Aaron Ross, who found himself five yards out of position-too far by inches to make a play on an under-thrown ball-as Delhomme lobbed in a ball that Muhammad took 60 yards to set up Williams' third touchdown.

Those defensive deficiencies got lost in the lovefest that was the Giants' press conference. Coughlin explained that Justin Tuck was suffering something flu-like, hence his complete absence, and seemed to think there were just a few things that needed tweaking; nothing too serious. But Delhomme still finished the game without being touched, save for a few postgame handshakes. That kind of play isn't going to fly in the playoffs, especially if faced with the blitz-crazy Cowboys. And wouldn't that be something special, three Cowboys-Giants games in one year, again?

4. One thing is clear in the post-Plaxico era: no one person will fill Burress' void. That fact has been obvious for several weeks now, but on Sunday the Giants seemed to come to terms with it. In a gritty performance that again saw him running around like a chicken with his head cut off for most of four quarters, Eli Manning deftly spread the ball around to four wide receivers and used each of his three running backs (Ward, Jacobs and Madison Hedgecock) for a solid 181 yards, including a four-yard touchdown to tight end Kevin Boss and a spiffy play action pass for a needed two-point conversion to Domenik Hixon that nearly every attendee in the stadium bit on.

Two particular plays showed just how much the Giants don't miss Burress: On the fifth play of the game Hixon had determination in coming back on an under-thrown ball for a 40 yard gain that set up the Giants' first points of the night. Later, Amani Toomer snagged a ball along the right sideline and tippy-toed through a few defenders for a few extra yards. He easily could have avoided the inevitable punishing hit that ended the play by stepping out of bounds, but he opted for the yards. Those aren't the kinds of things Burress was known for.

In the locker room, Coughlin and Manning also credited the receivers' downfield blocking for breaking some of the night's longer runs. And I'll point it out again: not a Plaxico staple.

5. If the Giants are the best team in football, then the Panthers have to be right there behind them. But they only have four weeks to change that perception. For two quarters, the Panthers dominated the Giants in almost every facet of the game; one could even argue that they were more effective running the ball, at least within the 20s. But ultimately their defense buckled. Be it the weather (like the swirling winds that almost tore the afro right off of National Anthem singer Rissi Palmer and later punched John Kasay's potential game-winner wide to the left) or the crowd, which was in rare snowball-throwing glee all night, Carolina crumbled in the second half in New Jersey. They're likely to be back here if they make it to the NFC championship, and neither the weather nor the crowd will be any friendlier, so some things have to change. For one, they'll have to resolve their defensive line problems. Paging Ed Johnson?