Wednesday, January 04, 2006

NFC East Champion Giants Ready For Playoffs

It was five years in the making. The Giants (11-5) clinched the NFC East with a 30-21 victory at Oakland on New Year's Eve to win their first NFC East title since 2000- breaking the four-year run of the Eagles.

Tiki Barber continued his MVP calibre season with his third 200-plus rushing yard performance of the season. He plowed over the Raiders for 203 yards on the ground and six catches for 60 receiving yards (263 total). It included a Giants' franchise record 95-yard touchdown run early in the game to give them a 7-0 lead. Barber's career best score eclipsed Hap Moran's 91-yard TD run set way back in 1930.

On second-and-14 from his own 5, Barber carried the ball to the left and then bounced it outside. The key to the run were two Plaxico Burress blocks, which gave Barber an easy sprint down the sideline for the score.

"It's a play we run all the time," Barber told reporters. "We have a lot of confidence. I'm just playing good right now, and I know it."

In a brilliant season, the 30-year-old Barber finished with a career high 1,860 rushing yards- finishing 20 yards behind NFL rushing leader Shaun Alexander. Alexander had 73 yards in Seattle's final game Sunday against Green Bay.

The Raiders cameback on the arm of former Giant quarterback Kerry Collins. Collins, who led Big Blue to Super Bowl XXXV in '01, wanted to exact some revenge for how his Giant career ended. Against his ex-team, he was 26-of-48 for 331 yards and three TDs including two strikes to Randy Moss. But it wasn't enough.

After a Collins 15-yard TD pass to Moss which tied the score at seven, the Giants scored 13 unanswered to take a 20-7 lead. A solid drive which stalled inside the Raider 10 produced a Jay Feely 25-yard field goal making it 10-7. They got the ball back a few minutes later and on the third play, Manning, who replaced Collins, tossed a 78-yard touchdown to Burress to increase the lead to 10. After a 38-yard Feely FG made it 20-7, Collins finally answered back with an 8-yard TD pass to Doug Gabriel, cutting the deficit to 20-14 at the half.

The two teams exchanged scores 56 seconds apart in the third quarter to keep the Giants ahead 27-21. Setup by a 58-yard punt return from Chad Morton, rookie Brandon Jacobs ran in from one yard out. Collins cameback with a perfect 44-yard bomb to Moss, who beat rookie Corey Webster for the second time. Webster made his first start in place of Curtis Deloatch.

Feely's third kick of the night gave Big Blue a 30-21 lead three seconds into the final quarter. But the Raiders made one more attempt at coming back driving all the way to the Giant 1-yard line with 3:44 left. That's when the Giants defense stiffened, stuffing Zach Crockett three times and stopping a Collins sneak on fourth down, which was confirmed by booth review to end the final Raider threat.

"Nothing is ever easy," said Giants coach Tom Coughlin, who was given a Gatorade bath by Michael Strahan and Osi Umenyiora. "Obviously we had some big plays tonight, and we needed them."

"You always go into the season hoping for the best," John Mara said. "I legitimately thought we could be a playoff team this year, but I can't say I expected to win the division."

Now the Giants have the task of hosting the 11-5 Carolina Panthers this Sunday at 1 PM. However, Barber doesn't seem to mind.

"It’s a huge benefit for us," he said. "There’s nothing like playoff games in Giants Stadium, as we found out a few years ago. Just like when we played the Seattle Seahawks, and I can’t remember who we played the week after, but we’re going to need our twelfth man as our advantage, and fortunately we were able to get a home game and have that."

It promises to be a tough battle against a familiar foe- former defensive coordinator, now Carolina coach John Fox.

"They make the schedule, and that's who we end up playing," Fox said of the prospect of facing his old club. "I really couldn't think of anybody better to play. It's a team I'm familiar with, it's a stadium I'm familiar with, and we were just there in the preseason. We'll show up."

Fox's Panthers blitzed the Falcons 44-11 to clinch a wildcard Sunday. They are led by Pro Bowl receiver Steve Smith, who paced all NFL receivers with 1,563 yards and 12 TDs. He also tied with Arizona's Larry Fitzgerald for the league lead with 103 receptions. He is a gamebreaker who could make life miserable for the Giant secondary Sunday, which presents a big challenge.

"Every team that plays [Smith] tries to do something about his ability and that’s one of the scary things (because) he sits there atop the board in terms of yardage of non-running backs in the league. So, he’s an outstanding player performing at a very high level," noted Coughlin.

On whether they'll double-team him, Coughlin said, "Whatever your decisions are in terms of the strategy that you are going to employ, you’ve got to be able to execute it."

The task promises to be a handful for Will Allen, Webster and company. Other than Smith, Big Blue's D must contain DeShaun Foster on the ground. In place of the injured Stephen Davis, Foster ran for 165 yards and a score against the Falcons last week. Compared to Davis' power style, Foster is a quicker runner who prefers to get to the outside. The Giants must be ready for that change of pace.

The dynamic duo of Strahan (11.5 sacks) and Umenyiora (league best 14.5 sacks) will look to pressure the battle-tested Jake Delhomme. Delhomme led the Panthers to the Super Bowl two years ago. If he's given time, he can pick you apart. That can't happen Sunday.

"The challenge, for us, is always, one, stop the run, and, two, pressure the quarterback," Coughlin said. "After that, we have to defend better and defend tighter, obviously, but we have to. And they’ll block it up. They’ll be in maximum protection, but we have to mount continuous pressure."

The Giants should get a boost from tight end Jeremy Shockey, who sat out the final game with a sprained ankle. The All-Pro will be ready to go this weekend.

"Jeremy Shockey is Jeremy Shockey. You need to have all your fire power available to you."

If Shockey can make an impact, it gives Eli Manning another weapon to throw to. All season, he and Burress have been a solid one-two combo. Their presence has allowed Amani Toomer to come up with some big plays as well.

One key will be Barber against the Carolina D. He's been the focal point of the offense. How Carolina's third ranked NFL defense handles Barber could go a long way to determining who advances. The Panthers are led by Julius Peppers and Mike Rucker up front. They combined for 18 sacks this season and helped the league's fourth best D against the run (91.6 yards-per-game) make life miserable.

Peppers and Rucker will also try to apply heavy pressure on Manning. The second-year QB was inconsistent down the stretch and must not make any crucial mistakes Sunday because Carolina's defense is extremely fast. They also possess dangerous corner Chris Gamble (7 interceptions) in the secondary.

This will be a big test for Manning. Can the player who GM Ernie Accorsi gave up a king's ransom for to San Diego in the 2004 Draft deliver in his first ever postseason game? Tune in Sunday.


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