Possibly the closest Super Bowl matchup in history also poses the question: how much does it mean when certain aspects of an NFL team improve dramatically in the second half of the season?
10 Jan 2006
by Ned Macey
The Carolina Panthers and New York Giants faced off in what was expected to be a tense affair. The Giants were slight favorites thanks to home-field advantage and the recent strong play of Tiki Barber. Instead, the Panthers dominated both sides of the line of scrimmage and took advantage of Eli Manning's mistakes to rout the Giants 23-0.
According to DVOA, our advanced statistic that breaks down every play and compares it to league average, Carolina played the best game of any team this year, regular season or postseason. (For more information on DVOA, click here.) DVOA is a stat that is adjusted based on the strength of the opponent, and a good deal of the value of the game came from the adjustment for beating a very good Giants team. The question for the Panthers going forward is how good this Giants team was on Sunday. Were they the 11-5 NFC East champions or a team decimated by defensive injuries and led by a struggling young quarterback? The answer will determine whether or not the Panthers can duplicate their improbable run to the Super Bowl from two years ago.
|Team||Total DVOA||Offense||Defense||Spec. Tms|
On Sunday, Carolina's strategy evoked old-school football: run the ball and stop the run. Running the ball has been a problem for the Panthers all season, and they picked a good time to have their second best running game of the year. Defensively, they were able to contain Tiki Barber, putting the game in the hands of Eli Manning. The result for the Panthers was a dominating defensive performance.
The appearance of a powerful running game gives hope to the Panthers as they head into a matchup with the formidable Bears defense, but it is possible that their success was primarily the result of a weak Giants defense. DeShaun Foster took over as the primary ball carrier after Carolina's desultory loss to the Bears in Week 11. Over the season's final six games, Foster averaged 3.6 or fewer yards per carry -- when he wasn't facing the suspect Falcons run defense.
At first glance, the Giants are an excellent run defense, but injuries to their linebackers have made them very shaky in recent weeks. The Giants finished the regular season with the third best rushing defense in the league according to DVOA. However, by Sunday's game, their only healthy linebacker who had played the whole season was Nick Greisen, a preseason reserve. Even he was suffering from a "burner" and hardly effective.
The Panthers did take advantage of one weakness the Giants defense has shown all year: third-down defense. In the regular season, the Giants' third-down defense ranked 28th in DVOA. On Sunday, the Panthers' emphasis on ball control left them facing a number of third downs. Their success in those situations allowed them to control the clock and, as a result, the game.
On consecutive drives in the second quarter, the Panthers converted five straight third downs that led to 10 points. Admittedly, three points came after a lucky bounce on a short-field punt. In the fourth quarter, Carolina got the ball with nearly twelve minutes remaining and a 20-point lead. Whatever slim hopes the Giants may have harbored were erased by a nearly nine-minute drive that saw three third-down conversions.
The niftiest of the third-down plays came in the second quarter with the Panthers leading 7-0. Facing a third-and-8 from their own nine-yard line, the Panthers properly sensed a blitz. Coordinator Dan Henning eschewed both a conservative run and a pass to the sure-to-be-double-covered Steve Smith. Instead, Jake Delhomme dumped off a screen pass to backup running back Nick Goings who scooted forward behind the left tackle for a first down.
The Panthers' success on third down led to a massive time of possession advantage. The two long drives in the second quarter helped to hold the Giants offense to only three possessions in the first half. In the second half, the offense did its best to give the ball back to Carolina as soon as possible. Four of five Giants possessions ended in turnovers, and the fifth one featured a Jeremy Shockey fumble that was ruled down by contact. None of these drives lasted more than six plays.
The magnitude of the Panthers defensive domination may have been surprising, but John Fox's defense is certainly among the league's best. They rank fourth in overall DVOA for the season and first in weighted DVOA, which puts more emphasis on the most recent games. (Of course, the only reason Carolina is not second is that Chicago played second-stringers in Week 17.)
The defense focused its efforts on stuffing Tiki Barber, who had been on an incredible hot streak. The Panthers frequently brought a safety into the box to hold Barber to short gains. With so few first-half possessions, the Giants were never able to effectively adapt to this defense. Tiki touched the ball on all seven Giants first downs in the first half. Certainly he should be the focal point of the offense, but when every first down play is going to the same guy, you are playing into the defense's hands.
In the second half, the Giants tried to diversify, but they were undone by a dominating performance by the Carolina pass rush and Manning's continued struggles. The Panthers knew that the Giants would have to pass, and they attacked Manning accordingly. Manning was sacked twice in the second half by blitzers, and lineman Jordan Carstens brought him down after a stunt.
Manning had no support from his running game, and he faced constant pressure, but his performance was still inexcusable. For the game, Manning was 2-for-7 on third down with two interceptions. Only one of the completions netted a first down. His first two interceptions were terrible throws. The first one â€“ the now infamous "roll right, throw wildly left" play â€“ came with the Giants down by only 10 points and deep in their own territory. That interception and the Steve Smith end-around on the next play effectively ended the game.
For the season, Manning ranked 21st among quarterbacks in DVOA. The only playoff team with a starting quarterback ranked lower is Chicago. A year ago, the 21st ranked quarterback was Kyle Boller. This doesn't mean Manning has no future -- his DVOA is similar to what Byron Leftwich posted a year ago, and Leftwich enjoyed a very good season before injuring his ankle. Manning has obvious talent and took great strides this year. Nonetheless, if his last name were Jones, he would be just another young quarterback trying to be more like Leftwich than Boller.
While the Giants have an off-season to search for answers, the Panthers head into a rematch with the Bears playing as well as they have all year. The last time they were considered to be playing great football, however, they travelled to Chicago and got manhandled in a 13-3 loss. The solid Bears victory served as the subject matter for a previous Any Given Sunday column.
Defensively, the Panthers should be fine. The switch in Chicago from Kyle Orton to Grossman is a definite upgrade, but Grossman is not even the player Eli Manning is. In addition, as bad as Orton was on the season, one of his better games came against Carolina.
Even with Orton at quarterback, the Bears were able to win by constantly pressuring Jake Delhomme. Delhomme threw two picks on the day and was sacked eight times. Nothing in the Giants game proves Delhomme has solved the problems that plagued him against Chicago. The passing offense has devolved to featuring extended handoffs to Steve Smith in the hopes he does something special. Against the Giants, Delhomme completed a total of four passes to receivers that gained more than 10 yards.
Such a conservative attack was not a problem with Foster running wild, but the Panthers' fate basically rests in his ability to replicate that performance. His next game comes against a team that features a solid defensive line and two Pro Bowl linebackers. Foster's history of mediocre performances, including in big games against Tampa Bay and Dallas this season, makes continued success unlikely. (Foster had 46 yards against Tampa Bay, 68 yards against Dallas, and averaged below 3.5 yards per carry in both games.) The strong game from Nick Goings against New York suggests that the potent rushing attack may have been the result of bad defense instead of good offense.
Foster proved many of his doubters wrong with an excellent game on Sunday. He will need to do so again against Chicago or the fate of the Panthers will rest on the arm of Jake Delhomme. Such a possibility is a scary one for Carolina fans who remember all too well what happened in Chicago earlier this season.
Each Tuesday in Any Given Sunday, Ned Macey looks at the biggest upset of the previous weekend. The NFL sells itself on the idea that any team can win any given game, but we use these upsets as a tool to explore what trends and subtle aspects of each team are revealed in a single game.
51 comments, Last at 12 Jan 2006, 7:24pm by J.S.