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Breaking down the game: Giants vs. Panthers

BY TOM ROCK

tom.rock@newsday.com

What's at stake?

If the Giants win, they'll be 9-6 and cannot be eliminated from the playoff race until the final week of the season. If the Cowboys or the Packers lose, the Giants would also slip into a wild-card spot with a week to play. In that case, they would need only to win at Minnesota to clinch a berth and not worry about scoreboard watching.

If the Giants lose, and both the Packers and the Cowboys win, the Giants will be eliminated from the playoffs. It wouldn't be a quick blow, either, since the Cowboys play Sunday night in Washington, so they'd have to wait for their fate. A loss by either of the teams would mean the Giants need a win next week and would still need help to get in.

Players the Giants must stop

DE Julius Peppers

He had just one sack Sunday against the Vikings, but he dominated the game with his pushes into the backfield and disruption of the offense. He has 9.5 sacks this season and has five forced fumbles, but he's shown he can take over a game without making a splash on the stat sheet.

RB Jonathan Stewart

Stewart normally takes a backseat to DeAngelo Williams, but with Williams doubtful (ankle), Stewart should get most of the work. He is bothered by an Achilles, but he's still a dangerous back. Last week, when Williams went down, Stewart finished with 109 rushing yards and a TD. He was the first 100-plus yard rusher against the Vikings in more than two years.

WR Steve Smith

Smith is closing in on another 1,000-yard receiving season and has six TD receptions, but with the move to strong-armed Matt Moore at quarterback, Smith has become more of a downfield threat in recent weeks, catching passes of 66, 41 and 45 yards since the switch from Jake Delhomme.

Giants who must play well

QB Eli Manning

Manning has been playing some of the best regular-season football of his career in the last few weeks and the Giants will need him to keep it going if they hope for a playoff run. Back-to-back games with three TD passes and no interceptions hadn't happened for a Giants passer since 1984. Can Manning make it three in a row?

CB Terrell Thomas

He's coming off his best game as a pro against the Redskins, will have to take Steve Smith out of the game Sunday. The only real mainstay in the Giants' secondary this season, he might draw inspiration from the fact that Smith didn't even know his name when asked about the matchup.

LT David Diehl

He will be lined up across from Peppers for most of the game and will try to avoid the highlight reel of shame that Vikings tackle Bryant McKinnie had to live with after his Sunday night beatdown by the veteran pass rusher. Rookie right tackle Will Beatty might get a taste of Peppers on third downs, too.

The wild card

Matt Moore will make just his seventh career start, filling in for injured/ineffective Jake Delhomme. If the Giants can rattle the inexperienced signal-caller by disguising blitzes and coverages, they'll have a much better chance of pressuring him into mistakes. The sacks started to show up last week against the Redskins, and the Giants' pass rushers would like them to stay there.

How they win

Playing a team without playoff hopes for the second week in a row, the Giants' sense of urgency and intensity once again overwhelms. They'll be able to bully Moore against a pair of backup tackles on the offensive line and stop a running game without DeAngelo Williams and relying on a banged-up Jonathan Stewart. Without the run, play-action passes to Steve Smith won't work.

How they lose

Julius Peppers spends most of the game draped on Eli Manning's back like a royal robe and the Giants are unable to run or throw the ball without the Panthers disturbing their rhythm. The Giants' secondary that played so disciplined on Monday night lets Smith and Muhsin Muhammad each slip behind the safeties for long touchdown passes while the defensive front allows the Panthers to run the ball and control the clock.

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