CHARLOTTE, NC — Thursday night bookends an amazing opportunity spanning four days for the surging Carolina Panthers to prove their worthiness for this NFL season.
First, coming off a terrible opening-day loss at the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Carolina hosted the New Orleans Saints, who also suffered a bad loss in their opener. Many national pundits didn’t envy the Panthers having to play a wounded and angry New Orleans team coming off a defeat.
But Carolina prevailed, exploding after a slow start to notch a 35-27 victory. The next prong of this span comes Thursday night when the defending Super Bowl champion New York Giants visit Charlotte.
The occasion means two of the last three Super Bowl-winning teams and quarterbacks visiting the Queen City in a four-day period. That’s pretty exciting stuff, and offers the team quite a platform.
“This is the national spotlight,” Panthers coach Ron Rivera said. “You want to talk about bright lights and a big stage, this is as big as it gets. You’re playing the defending champs, you’re playing them on Thursday night. You are the prime-time game… This is great for us and great for our fans to come out and show exactly who we are, show the country.”
Drew Brees and the Saints couldn’t escape Bank of America Stadium with a victory. In fact, Carolina got to Brees so often that he made several questionable throws, once leading to an interception returned for a touchdown and the other to essentially close the game. An intentional grounding took the Saints out of field goal position on another possession.
Now comes Eli Manning, winner of two Super Bowls and who passed for 510 yards in a 41-34 victory over Tampa Bay on Sunday. That’s the same defense that held Carolina to 10 points in the opener.
“To get this quarterback off his mark is big,” Rivera said about the Panthers’ plan. “He’s as good as they are in the league, he’s as talented as they are in the league. And if you can get him off (his) mark then you’re doing something well.”
Rivera later said, “I don’t care what anybody says, you win two Super Bowls you’re talking about an elite quarterback in the NFL.”
Manning is 52-for-83 so far this season for 723 yards and four touchdowns. In addition to his yardage and three scores on Sunday, he was also picked off three times. By comparison, Carolina quarterback Cam Newton passed for 303 yards, a touchdown and was intercepted twice by the Buccaneers.
Among the primary challenges is preparing for a New York defense that is multifaceted in its dimensions. The personnel adds to the trickiness of it.
Giants defensive coordinator Perry Fewell led a group that allowed just 14 points per contest in the team’s four-game run to a world title last winter. His defense is almost like playing against a 3-4 “philosophically,” Rivera said Monday,
If athletic and deep up front, like the Giants are, Fewell’s defense can be especially effective. Rivera envisions employing something similar in Carolina sometime in the future, but now must deal with trying to overcome it in a short week.
“They’ve got some guys that can drop into coverage, that can rush the passer, can peel off if they have to in coverage, can drop off into coverage,” the Carolina coach said. “We’ve got to be able to develop a feel and have a good understanding of what they want to do and when they want to do it. And when you’ve got a short week it cuts your preparation time tremendously.”
Rivera and most of the players don’t care for the short week. They understand the benefits of playing on the national stage, but it also disrupts their routine. And professional athletes are much happier as regimented creatures.
“Just gotta rest and practice,” Panthers’ tailback Jonathan Stewart said. “Find a way to balance it out, I guess.”
Rivera said when he played for the Chicago Bears in the 1980s he hated Monday night games and late games in general. He didn’t like waiting around for the game as opposed to getting up on a Sunday and playing right away.
With Chicago in the central time zone, the Bears usually played at noon, and Rivera loved getting the game over with and then going out, having a good time and watching the other teams play.
There will be no routine Thursday, and this being such a new experience for the Panthers, the Giants will have an edge in already knowing how to deal with the circumstances
But that’s just another obstacle and opportunity for the Panthers, who just may be up to the challenge.