Cam Newton and the Carolina Panthers have been waiting anxiously for the opportunity to showcase themselves in front of a national audience, a stage on which Eli Manning and the New York Giants have enjoyed a wealth of both experience and success in recent years.
The two teams will also be aiming to build off extremely important wins in their last outing when they take the field at Charlotte's Bank of America Stadium for a Thursday night showdown that will launch the Week 3 schedule of this 2012 NFL season.
Carolina earned its long-awaited return to notoriety thanks largely to the talents and charisma of Newton, the league's reigning Offensive Rookie of the Year who established a new season standard for first-year quarterbacks by amassing 4,051 passing yards and accounting for 35 touchdowns (21 passing, 14 rushing) during a dynamic debut for the top overall selection of the 2011 draft.
Manning, himself a former No. 1 pick, and the Giants certainly carry considerable credentials as well. The incredibly clutch quarterback led New York to a Super Bowl victory for the second time in five seasons with last February's 21-17 ousting of the New England Patriots in Indianapolis, and capped a stellar 2011 campaign in which he threw for nearly 5,000 yards by garnering Most Valuable Player honors in the title bout.
Those achievements have made the Giants a natural fit for Carolina's first prime-time home game since November of 2009.
"This is the national spotlight," exclaimed Panthers head coach Ron Rivera. "You want to talk about bright lights and big stage? This is as big as it gets. You're playing the defending champs, you're playing on Thursday night. You are the prime-time game. This is great for us."
Manning comes into the contest off another noteworthy performance, with the veteran triggerman racking up a career-best 510 passing yards and three touchdowns to spark a 25-point fourth-quarter barrage that propelled the Giants to a wild 41-34 win over Tampa Bay Sunday at MetLife Stadium.
New York rallied from a 27-13 deficit late in the third quarter, a hole Manning helped create by tossing three first-half interceptions, and generated a whopping 604 total yards on the same Buccaneers defense that clamped down on Carolina's usually potent rushing attack in a 16-10 decision over the Panthers in Week 1.
The majority of Manning's damage came on connections to wide receivers Hakeem Nicks and Victor Cruz, with the outstanding duo combining for 378 yards and two touchdowns on 21 catches to help the Giants bounce back from a 24-17 home defeat to rival Dallas in the season opener.
"No one wants to start 0-2," said Manning afterward. "It's a big win, and especially after the first half and playing poorly and last week not playing well, to get back to that level of playing good football, and that second half was really good. "We can do some things better, obviously, but [getting] some big-time plays and stepping up when we needed it -- that was fun to have."
Nicks, however, aggravated an injury to a surgically repaired foot he had fractured during offseason workouts and will not play on Thursday. The Giants will also be without main running back Ahmad Bradshaw, who suffered a neck stinger in the Tampa Bay game, as well as wide receiver Domenik Hixon (concussion) and right tackle David Diehl (sprained knee).
Carolina also rebounded strongly in a critical early home test this past weekend, topping the wayward New Orleans Saints by a 35-27 count behind a big effort from Newton and a pair of crucial interceptions of Drew Brees by the defense.
A Panthers' running game that was surprisingly stagnant in managing a paltry 10 yards on 13 attempts against the Bucs was firing on all cylinders on Sunday. Carolina compiled 219 yards and three touchdowns on the ground, with Newton setting a franchise record for a quarterback with 71 yards on 13 totes.
Carolina did allow 163 rushing yards to the Saints, but will be going up against a Giants group that will have journeyman Andre Brown taking Bradshaw's place. Brown has played for five teams in four pro seasons, which includes a one-week stint on the Panthers' roster in 2010.
Series tied, 3-3
Last Meeting: Giants 31, Panthers 18 (Sept. 12, 2010 at New York) Last Meeting at Site: Giants 27, Panthers 13 (Dec. 10, 2006)
Giants HC Tom Coughlin vs. Panthers: 5-2 overall, 3-2 with New York Panthers HC Ron Rivera vs. Giants: 0-0 Coughlin vs. Rivera Head-to-Head: First Meeting
Notes: Giants have taken three of the last four bouts between the clubs, with Carolina's lone win over that stretch a 41-9 shellacking of New York in Big Blue's final game at Giants Stadium on Dec. 27, 2009. New York is 1-1 all-time on the road against Carolina, having dropped a 27-17 decision in Charlotte in 1996 in addition to its 2006 verdict. Panthers prevailed in their lone postseason meeting with the Giants, a 23-0 road triumph in a 2005 NFC First- Round Playoff. Coughlin went 2-0 against Carolina while the head coach of Jacksonville from 1995-2002.
BY THE NUMBERS
Offensive Team Rankings
N.Y. Giants: 2nd overall (436.5 ypg), 24th rushing (88.0 ypg), 1st passing (348.5 ypg), tied 7th scoring (29.0 ppg)
Carolina: 8th overall (382.0 ypg), tied 11th rushing (114.5 ypg), 7th passing (267.5 ypg), tied 19th scoring (22.5 ppg)
Defensive Team Rankings
N.Y. Giants: 19th overall (370.0 ypg), 16th rushing (111.0 ypg), 22nd passing (259.0 ypg), 25th scoring (29.0 ppg)
Carolina: 20th overall (372.0 ypg), 28th rushing (146.5 ypg), 12th passing (225.5 ypg), tied 11th scoring (21.5 ppg)
N.Y. Giants: -1 (3 takeaways, 4 giveaways) Carolina: -1 (2 takeaways, 3 giveaways)
Red Zone Touchdown Percentage (offense)
N.Y. Giants: 37.5 percent (8 possessions, 3 TD, 5 FG) -- 26th overall Carolina: 66.7 percent (6 possessions, 4 TD, 1 FG) -- tied 6th overall
Red Zone Touchdown Percentage (defense)
N.Y. Giants: 75.0 percent (4 possessions, 3 TD, 1 FG) -- tied 27th overall Carolina: 57.1 percent (7 possessions, 4 TD, 3 FG) -- 19th overall
WHEN THE GIANTS HAVE THE BALL
No team has passed for more yardage through this season's first two weeks than the Giants, and expect Manning (723 passing yards, 4 TD, 3 INT) to be attacking a Carolina secondary that has a few question marks quite often throughout the evening. He won't be competing with a full complement of receivers, however, with Charlotte native Nicks (14 receptions, 237 yards, 1 TD) ruled out just days after toasting Tampa Bay's Aqib Talib for a career- high 199 yards on 10 grabs and No. 3 wideout Hixon also shelved. As a result, Manning will be more dependent on the shifty Cruz (17 receptions, 237 yards, 1 TD), who contributed personal bests with 11 catches totaling 179 yards last week and hauled in an 80-yard scoring strike that helped key the Giants' comeback, with tall target Ramses Barden and rookie second-round pick Reuben Randle now asked to play more prominent roles. Brown, who hails from North Carolina as well, also helped Sunday's cause by grinding out 71 yards and his first pro touchdown on 13 carries in place of Bradshaw (94 rushing yards, 1 TD, 2 receptions), and he and slow-developing 2012 first-rounder David Wilson will try to provide the offense with some balance with New York's leading rusher to be held out. Diehl's absence didn't affect the line's ability to protect a week ago, as Manning wasn't sacked at all during his record-setting day, but the Giants may need to fare better within the red zone to come out on top this week. The team marched inside the Tampa 20-yard line five times on Sunday, but settled for field goals by kicker Lawrence Tynes on four of those occasions.
Though the Panthers gave up 323 net passing yards to the high-powered Saints in Week 2, the defense did a solid job of keeping splash plays to a minimum and was able to mount steady pressure on Brees from the front four of ends Charles Johnson (4 tackles) and Frank Alexander (2 tackles) and tackles Greg Hardy (11 tackles) and Dwan Edwards (10 tackles, 2.5 sacks). That resulted in a pair of big interceptions, with strong safety Charles Godfrey (17 tackles, 1 INT) returning his nine yards for a touchdown and middle linebacker Jon Beason (17 tackles, 1 INT, 2 PD) picking off Brees in the final minute to end New Orleans' comeback hopes. Carolina needs to improve in the run-stopping and tackling department, however, after being gashed for 110 yards on only nine attempts by the Saints' Pierre Thomas last week, with Beason and heralded rookie linebacker Luke Kuechly (9 tackles) the ones responsible for ensuring the Giants aren't able to break containment in a similar fashion. The Panthers do possess a shutdown cornerback capable of neutralizing either Nicks or Cruz in veteran Chris Gamble (7 tackles, 2 PD), but raw rookie Josh Norman (12 tackles) and undersized nickel back Captain Munnerlyn (5 tackles, 2 PD) can be vulnerable targets if the pass rush isn't bringing the heat.
WHEN THE PANTHERS HAVE THE BALL
As the first two games have illustrated, the Panthers can be awfully tough to handle when they're running the football with authority and far easier to defend when that aspect isn't clicking. It was working quite well against New Orleans, with Newton (556 passing yards, 2 TD, 2 INT) springing loose for a big gain on a designed run en route to a 71-yard output and the inside/outside tandem of Jonathan Stewart (51 rushing yards) and DeAngelo Williams (68 rushing yards, 1 TD) consistently churning out positive plays during the team's 219-yard ground effort. Since Newton has become the quarterback, Carolina is 6-2 when it rushes for 163 yards or more and 1-9 when failing to hit that mark. The effectiveness of the running game also enabled Newton to connect on several big passes to dangerous wideout Steve Smith (10 receptions, 210 yards) and emerging counterpart Brandon LaFell (9 receptions, 155 yards, 1 TD), with Smith recording a second straight 100-yard afternoon despite making only three catches and LaFell producing six grabs totaling 90 yards with a touchdown while creating matchup problems out of the slot with his 6-foot-2 frame. Offseason acquisition Louis Murphy (3 receptions) gives the offense another deep threat from the outside, with reliable tight end Greg Olsen (7 receptions) often Newton's safety valve underneath in addition to playing an important role as a run blocker. The Panthers enter Thursday's tilt with one injury concern, with starting right tackle Byron Bell questionable after rolling his ankle last week. His healthy presence would be welcome in order for Carolina to have its best chance of combating New York's vaunted pass rushers.
The goals will be pretty straightforward for the Giants' defense come Thursday: contain the run and eliminate the big plays. Save for a second-half meltdown attributed to fatigue in the Dallas game, the unit has been pretty sound in the first area, with New York holding impressive Tampa rookie Doug Martin to a modest 66 yards on 20 carries last week as tackles Rocky Bernard (8 tackles, 1 sack) and Linval Joseph (6 tackles, 1 sack) and game-changing end Jason Pierre-Paul (12 tackles, 1 sack) all continually won their battles along the line of scrimmage. Michael Boley (4 tackles, 2 INT) and Jacquian Williams (9 tackles), the Giants' two fastest linebackers, figure to have a important and challenging assignment that could have a significant say in the outcome, with the pair likely in charge of preventing Newton from ripping off any momentum-shifting runs. Shoring up the secondary ranks as the chief objective for coordinator Perry Fewell, however, as the Giants have surrendered four touchdown passes of 29 yards or more over the first two games. A cornerback crop thinned out by injuries helps explain that high number, and the club is hopeful 2011 first-round pick Prince Amukamara can come back this week after missing the season's initial two tests with a high ankle sprain. Getting ends Justin Tuck (7 tackles) and Osi Umenyiora (2 tackles) untracked would also benefit the pass defense, as the two accomplished sack artists have made a minimal impact in the early going. One New York player who has been strong in coverage is Boley, who's come up with an interception in each of the first two contests.
These teams haven't squared off since the opening game of the 2010 season, and that relative unfamiliarity on a short week could work to the Panthers' benefit. Carolina's unique offense could present problems for a Giants team with a reduced amount of preparation time, and a slow start for the defending champs won't be easy to overcome in an atmosphere that will certainly be jazzed up to the max in a contest the Carolina fans have been looking forward to ever since the schedule was released. The big plays that New York was able to produce in last week's comeback also won't likely be as prevalent against a Panthers secondary that's tighter on the back end that Tampa Bay's troublesome unit, and the task now becomes even more difficult with Nicks not available. Though the Giants can never be counted out as long as Manning's under center and there's a good chance he'll have his team in position to win at the end, this could be one where New York falls just short if it's not able to take full advantage of its scoring opportunities.
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Panthers 28, Giants 26