December 16, 2015

The Carolina Panthers are weighing the benefits of whether going for a perfect season is at odds with their ultimate goal of winning their first Super Bowl.

The New York Giants have plenty to worry about just to get into the playoffs.

Opting for the long view Sunday, the Panthers have ruled out running back Jonathan Stewart for a road game that features a marquee matchup between New York star Odell Beckham Jr. and Carolina cornerback Josh Norman.

Carolina is the ninth team in NFL history to start 13-0 and eighth in the Super Bowl era. Only the 1972 Miami Dolphins (14-0) and 2007 New England Patriots (16-0) capped perfect regular seasons.

It doesn't seem to be a priority for the Panthers, who can clinch the NFC's top seed this weekend with a victory and a loss by Arizona.

"It does go back to the fact that it's really not about going undefeated, it's about winning the Super Bowl," coach Ron Rivera said. "That's the thing that you have to really focus on is really what is the goal?"

Stewart, third in the NFL with 989 rushing yards, is out due to a sprained left foot suffered in last Sunday's 38-0 win over Atlanta. Fozzy Whittaker or Mike Tolbert will start in his place.

Greg Olsen, who has started 139 straight games and is second in the league among tight ends with 969 yards, will play after despite injuring his knee against the Falcons.

New York (6-7) has a history of upsetting unbeaten teams. The Giants surprised the 1998 Denver Broncos, who were 13-0 at the time and went on to win the Super Bowl. More notably, Eli Manning's Giants handed the 2007 Patriots their only loss in the Super Bowl.

Those feats are far from the minds of the Giants, who are tied with Washington and Philadelphia atop the mediocre NFC East. New York's path to the playoffs is even tougher than those of the Redskins and Eagles, who control their own destinies and can win the division by winning out.

"I don't think it's about knocking the other team off," Manning said. "In this situation in the season, it's about us needing a win and we need a win to keep our playoff dreams alive."

Manning was 27 of 31 for 337 yards and four touchdowns in Monday's 31-24 win at Miami that ended a three-game slide, earning NFC offensive player of the week honors. He found Beckham seven times for 166 yards with two scores, giving the receiver six straight 100-yard efforts for the longest streak in team history. It's the longest in the NFL since Denver's Demaryius Thomas had seven in a row last year.

Beckham will face a stiff challenge in trying to extend that run. Norman, expected to be the primary cover on him, has yet to let a receiver catch more than four balls or gain more than 36 yards this year.

Norman has 16 passes defensed to rank seventh in the league and opposing quarterbacks have a 50.5 passer rating when targeting him - sixth-best among players targeted at least 39 times.

"He's a technician, he gets himself in the right spot at the right time," Giants coach Tom Coughlin said. "He does play the ball in the air well. He's quick with his hands. He's physical."

Norman's excellence was on display last Sunday when Julio Jones, the NFL's leading receiver, had four catches for 33 yards when the two matched up. Jones became the first receiver in the last 11 games to catch more than two passes against Norman, who has allowed two touchdowns - none from Jones, DeAndre Hopkins, Mike Evans, Allen Robinson, DeSean Jackson or Dez Bryant.

Beckham has 12 TD catches to match Robinson and Tyler Eifert for the NFL lead.

"This should be a fun challenge I think for us as a defense and for Josh, who will get an opportunity to line up across from him a few times and we'll see how it all unfolds," Rivera said.

The Panthers' secondary has issues elsewhere. Carolina lost cornerback Bene Benwikere to a fractured leg last weekend after he had been starting for Charles Tillman, who has missed the last four games with a sprained knee but returned to practice Wednesday. Tillman is expected to play.

The Giants will have to contend with a Carolina pass rush that has produced an NFC-best 40 sacks. That could be even more tricky with left tackle Ereck Flowers nursing a left ankle injury that forced him out of Monday's game in the fourth quarter. Flowers, though, reportedly said he is "definitely" playing Sunday.

A New York defense that is allowing 425.0 yards per game - second-worst in the league - could be hard-pressed to slow down Cam Newton. The MVP candidate helped Carolina amass 928 yards in two games against the defense of New Orleans, which is comparable to New York's with an average of 428.3 yards given up.

Newton, who has thrown for eight TDs in his last two contests, leads the league with 20 touchdowns in the red zone to go with seven rushing scores. He'll be up against the second-worst pass rush in the league, with the Giants totaling 16 sacks.

Carolina has forced a league-high 33 turnovers while New York is tied for second with 25.

The Panthers won 38-0 the last time these teams met two seasons ago, sacking Manning seven times.

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