Giants, Panthers look to get back on track

EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. -- Unlike a year ago, there is no hoopla surrounding the New York Giants and Carolina Panthers heading into the opening game of the preseason.

Far from it.

Considered legitimate Super Bowl contenders in 2006, they turned out to be nothing more than underachievers in injury-filled seasons. Both posted 8-8 records, although the Giants somehow got into the playoffs for a quick cup of coffee.

Heading into Saturday night's game at Giants Stadium, coaches John Fox of the Panthers and Tom Coughlin of the Giants need their teams to produce in this season of change to keep their jobs.

Carolina will enter the year with a new offensive coordinator (Jeff Davidson), a potential quarterback controversy (Jake Delhomme vs. David Carr), a leadership question mark on defense with the retirement of Mike Minter and the uncertain status of linebacker Dan Morgan (concussions).

New York has two new coordinators (Kevin Gilbride, Steve Spagnuolo), questions surrounding quarterback Eli Manning and the halfback position with Tiki Barber retired, and a potential gaping hole on defense with seven-time Pro Bowl end Michael Strahan holding out and considering retirement.

It could be an ugly year for both again.

"Every year is long, but last year was really, really long," Delhomme said. "I'm looking forward to bouncing back and having a good year. I know as a whole we all want to get better. Defense, special teams and certainly offense, too.

"I think, collectively, we picked the same year to lay an egg last year," he added. "But in the grand scheme when you look at it, we still finished 8-8. That's not good, but it's average. If we can all improve, we can do some good things."

Carolina does have new pieces.

Linebacker Jon Beason, their top draft pick, ended an eight-day holdout and practiced for the first time on Monday. Expect him to play on Saturday. Morgan won't.

Safety Chris Harris, who was acquired from Chicago last week, is expected to start at strong safety.

With the release of receiver Keyshawn Johnson, Keary Colbert and second-round draft pick Dwayne Jarrett are expected to compete for the No. 2 spot opposite receiver Steve Smith, who will be the go-to guy in Davidson's offense. Jarrett is not accompanying the team for the game because of a hamstring injury.

"Everyone is excited to get to that first preseason game," Colbert said. "We've been going against each other for a long time. It kind of gets old because they know our tendencies and how we play. We know them. You just want to play against somebody else."

The game will showcase a couple of new looks for the Giants.

Big, bruising Brandon Jacobs will make his debut as Barber's replacement, running behind a line that features David Diehl at left tackle. He played left guard last year.

Defensively, Coughlin will get a chance to see how his defense performs without Strahan, whose holdout is in its third week. William Joseph and Justin Tuck will alternate at left end in Strahan's absence.

The game also will mark the debut of former defensive end Mathias Kiwanuka at strongside linebacker.

Coughlin downplayed the changes.

"Players retire and they move on, so someone else has to come along," Coughlin said. "I don't know that you call it a team in transition. There are some guys that are going to step up and play in positions that have been anchored by veterans for some time. So from that standpoint it's changed. But change (is) moving forward."

Manning, who has not lived up to the expectations the Giants had when they traded for the No. 1 overall pick in 2004, has to become more consistent this season, and avoid game-changing mistakes that have hurt the team.

He will probably play only a couple of series. He said he wanted to produce a score.

New York will be without leading receivers Plaxico Burress (ankle) and Amani Toomer, who is not being pushed because he is coming off knee surgery in November.

Sinorice Moss and rookie Steve Smith - the Southern California second-round pick who has been the star of training camp - will probably start.

"If you score and go in on your first drive that doesn't mean you are going to win the Super Bowl," Giants center Shaun O'Hara said. "If you don't do well and go three-and-out, it puts things in perspective and means you still have work to do."

Whatever happens, the Panthers and Giants will have a lot of work to do this season to get back on track.

Copyright 2007 by The Associated Press

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