12/17/08 — Opinion -- Panthers will play another milestone game

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Opinion -- Panthers will play another milestone game

By Andrew Stevens
Published in Sports on December 17, 2008 1:46 PM

From the time his franchise played its first game in 1995 to its only Super Bowl appearance in the 2003-04 season, owner Jerry Richardson has lived to witness his Carolina Panthers in moments like these.

The Panthers visit the defending Super Bowl champion New York Giants (11-3) on Sunday night in the biggest regular-season game in franchise history. The winner of this showdown locks up home-field advantage throughout the NFC playoffs.

Milestone opportunities of this magnitude have only come twice in Carolina's 14-year existence. That is until now.

The Panthers' first milestone came when it reached the NFC Championship in 1996 -- then a second-year team -- and fell 30-13 at Green Bay. The second such opportunity came in the 2003-04 season when Carolina lost to New England 32-29 in Super Bowl XXXVIII.

Charlotte's Bank of America Stadium has never struck fear in the heart of any opponent. Panthers fans have yet to gain a reputation as some of the league's more boisterous supporters.

Carolina (11-3) is off to the best start in franchise history, is 8-0 at home this season and has a 2-0 all-time record at home in the playoffs. Conversely, the Panthers are just 3-3 on the road this year and are 4-3 in the postseason away from home.

With the season on the line every time a team takes the field in the postseason a price tag simply can't be placed on sleeping in your own bed, not having to travel and all the familiarities that come with playing at home.

Riding a two-game losing streak, New York has suddenly looked incredibly vulnerable since losing wide receiver Plaxico Burress for the remainder of the season.

A Giants running attack that had compiled 1,922 yards in the first 12 games has gained just 160 combined yards in the last two contests. The absence of starting tailback Brandon Jacobs has taken its toll on the offense -- in particular quarterback Eli Manning.

Manning was sacked eight times in Dallas last Sunday night and was also picked off twice. By virtually eliminating New York's running game and making the Giants one-dimensional, Dallas put constant pressure on Manning, rattled the young quarterback and smothered his receivers.

Carolina's defense has shown the ability to be as equally as physical at times this season, but has yet to be consistently dominant. The Panthers are allowing 18.9 points per game, but have surrendered 20 or more points and 300-plus yards in each of their three road losses.

Aided by a dominating running game the past few weeks, Carolina quarterback Jake Delhomme will need to elevate his play against a stingy New York defense that allows just over 90 yards a contest on the ground.

Delhomme has thrown just 14 touchdown passes to 12 interceptions this season and has eclipsed the 200-yard mark through the air just twice on the road all year.

Panthers running backs DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart, commonly referred to by teammates and fans as Smash and Dash, currently lead all NFL running tandems with 1,980 yards and have combined for a league-best 23 touchdowns.

Taking some pressure off Delhomme, controlling the clock and keeping Manning and the New York offense off the field will be pivotal for Smash and Dash.

Richardson, 72, is currently awaiting a heart transplant and was forced to miss his first home game in the franchise's history on Dec. 10 when the Panthers defeated Tampa Bay.

His players may not be able to give Richardson what he ultimately needs in the form of a new heart. But securing home-field advantage and possibly a chance to re-write the ending to Carolina's only other Super Bowl appearance could be quite a consolation prize.