The Carolina Panthers host the New York Giants in a critical NFC showdown on Thursday Night Football (8:20 p.m ET, NFL Network). This Week 3 game obviously doesn't have immediate playoff implications, but its winner goes over .500 and gets in position to finish the opening month of the season with a strong record.
The Giants (1-1) are coming off a dramatic come-from-behind win over the Tampa Bay Buccaneers that showcased the explosiveness of the passing game under the direction of Eli Manning. The Panthers (1-1) enter the game riding a wave of momentum after a strong win over the New Orleans Saints. With the national spotlight, this game should feature a playoff-like atmosphere in Bank of America Stadium.
Here are four key questions for tonight's showdown:
Carolina's eighth-ranked offense presents unique challenges to opponents due to the heavy utilization of option concepts. The Panthers will show a variety of option plays, from the zone read to the triple option, which forces defenders to play assignment football or run the risk of giving up big plays on the perimeter. Cam Newton is the perfect triggerman in this system, given his remarkable talents as a dual-threat playmaker and superb ball-handling skills.
Carolina's backfield trio of DeAngelo Williams, Jonathan Stewart and Mike Tolbert also presents problems within the scheme, providing speed, quickness and power. Each shows the capability of turning the corner on outside runs, while also possessing the strength and power to churn out tough yardage between the tackles. As a result, defenders are routinely left in a quandary when determining which runner to defend as the ball heads to the corner. Stewart is questionable with an ankle injury, but with the other two backs (as well as Newton), the Panthers' ground attack will challenge Big Blue regardless of whether or not No. 28's in the lineup.
For New York, Perry Fewell must craft a plan that clearly assigns a defender to each potential runner, while also keeping the plan simple enough to allow the defense to play fast. Any hesitation by a member of the Giants' front seven will create seams in the heart of the defense, leading to big plays by Newton and Co. on the ground. That is not only a recipe for disaster, but it is a sure-fire way for the Giants to get run out of Bank of America field.
2) Can Carolina get pressure on Eli Manning?
Lost in Manning's 510-yard performance against Buccaneers was his superb efficiency from the pocket, particularly in the second half. He picked apart the defense with a surgeon's precision, displaying exceptional accuracy and ball placement for most of the game. Although Manning tossed three interceptions on the day, he didn't hit the turf once and showed how well he could perform when allowed to find a rhythm within the pocket.
For the Panthers to win, the front four must generate consistent pressure to force Manning away from his sweet spot. Charles Johnson, in particular, must provide a rush off the edge to push Manning into the waiting arms of Dwan Edwards. The Panthers must also selectively use five- and six-man pressures to alter Manning's timing and rhythm in the pocket. The Panthers can force the two-time Super Bowl MVP into couple of key miscues that result in turnovers by speeding up his internal clock.
3) Can Andre Brown spark Big Blue's sagging running game?
The Giants have been able to survive without offensive balance, but the lack of a running game has put an inordinate amount of pressure on Manning and the aerial attack. With a key member of the passing game (Hakeem Nicks) out with an injury, the Giants will look to establish a ground threat. Unfortunately, Ahmad Bradshaw is also sidelined for tonight's bout. Thus, New York will look for Brown to deliver a big performance to keep the Panthers from loading up against the pass.
Last week, Brown rumbled for 71 yards on 13 carries against the Buccaneers; this unexpected production from the fourth-year back created big-play opportunities in the passing game off play action. If Brown is able to duplicate his performance against the Panthers, Manning should have plenty of time to exploit a secondary short on talent in key areas.
4) Will Cam Newton exploit the Giants' leaky secondary?
Newton has set a new standard of play for young quarterbacks with his ability to torment opponents with his arm or legs. As a passer, in particular, he has developed into a big-play machine with superb deep-ball touch and accuracy. The Panthers employ a vertical passing game that routinely allows Newton to push the ball down the field on deep routes to Steve Smith and Louis Murphy.
The Giants have struggled defending the pass, particularly the deep ball, with a secondary that has been ravaged by injuries. The Giants have allowed a league-worst three completions of 40-plus yards, while surrendering a whopping 9.6 yards per passing attempt (third-worst in the NFL). While Prince Amukamara's return to the starting lineup after a two-game absence will certainly add speed and athleticism to the unit, his lack of experience could be an issue against the likes of Smith, Murphy and emerging threat Brandon LaFell on the perimeter. With backup corners Justin Tryon and Michael Coe also short on experience, the Giants will quickly find out if their young secondary is up to the challenge.
The festive nature of a primetime crowd at Bank of America Stadium could give the Panthers a decided advantage in this matchup. An electric atmosphere will energize the home team and encourage Newton to raise his game on a national stage. The Giants are limping into this contest with a roster decimated by injuries. Thus, the challenge of winning a shootout with one of the league's most explosive offenses will overwhelm Tom Coughlin's squad.
Follow Bucky Brooks on Twitter @BuckyBrooks.