EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. (AP) -- The Carolina Panthers' defense
played like coach John Fox was in the New York huddle, spying on
his former team.
Fox had Carolina prepared for everything New York attempted, rattling Eli Manning into four turnovers, and Smith scored two
touchdowns to lead the Panthers to a lopsided 23-0 win over the
Giants in the first round of the NFC playoffs on Sunday.
"We challenged ourselves this week to know the Giants better
than they knew themselves," said Carolina defensive tackle
It was New York's first playoff shutout in 20 years -- and not
much of a stretch for the Panthers (12-5) under Fox, who spent five
seasons as New York's defensive coordinator before taking over in
Carolina in 2002.
Fox still maintains close relationships with everyone from the
front office to the cleaning crew, and he marked his return to the
Meadowlands by staying one step ahead of everything the Giants
tried to do.
"It was strange -- they were in our huddle a little bit," said
running back Tiki Barber, who was held to a season-low 41 yards.
"They kind of had us dissected and figured out and we couldn't get
anything going consistently."
Not on offense, not on defense and not on special teams. Manning
had his worst game of the season, the defense couldn't find a way
to slow Smith or Foster and the Giants muffed a punt while becoming
the first home playoff team to be shut out since Jan. 6, 1980, when the Los
Angeles Rams blanked Tampa Bay.
The Panthers played nearly as well as they did in their Super
Bowl season two years ago and advanced to Chicago (12-4) for the
divisional playoffs. The Bears won the only meeting this season,
13-3 in November.
"Everybody may say we're a Super Bowl team -- we're not," Smith
cautioned. "All we are is a one-win playoff team."
Carolina did it with a stout defense and a strong running game --
the same principles the Giants used this season to win their first
divisional title in five years.
Foster ran for 151 yards by going straight at the
Giants' depleted linebacker corps, kick-starting a running game
that has been spotty all year. It was just his third 100-yard game
this season -- the other two came against Atlanta, leading to
questions if Foster could run on any other team.
"I don't think they thought we would really run the ball
against them, but we established it early," Foster said. "It was
just wide open. I got right to the second level, early. If I can
get to the second level, I can make things happen."
But the play-making is usually reserved for Smith, and he didn't
disappoint with 10 catches for 84 yards. He scored once on a
22-yard catch from Jake Delhomme, then ran a reverse in 12 yards
for a second score.
"In my opinion, he should have been in the MVP voting with his
regular season performance," Fox said. "I think he just proved
his value to us today."
So did the defense, a staple of Fox's team.
Carolina intercepted Manning three times, then forced him to
fumble late in the game in front of a nearly empty Giants Stadium.
Plaxico Burress was shut out the entire game and the Giants managed
just 132 yards total offense.
"I didn't play well, and I made too many mistakes for us to win
today," said Manning, who finished 10-for-18 for 113 yards. "It
was not the way I wanted to come out and play. I look forward to
coming back and getting better."
His struggles had a lot to do with the Panthers, who were
insulted earlier in the week when Osi Umenyiora said Carolina had
the second-best defensive ends in the NFL. The shot at Julius Peppers and Mike Rucker stung, and the entire unit responded.
Although Umenyiora and Michael Strahan combined for three sacks
of Delhomme, Peppers, Rucker and the rest of the Panthers are the
ones still playing.
"We were always overlooked. We don't know why that is," said
safety Marlon McCree, who had two interceptions. "We've got the
third best defense in the league. Sooner or later, we'll get the
respect and recognition that we deserve."
Carolina forced five turnovers in all and kept New York's
offense off the field. It allowed the Panthers to keep the ball a
"I believe we still have a lot to be proud of," Barber said.
"We have no reason to hang our heads even though we showed the
playoffs weren't what we were ready for."
Not on Sunday they weren't.
The New York crowd, so rowdy at kickoff, booed the Giants off
the field after a frustrating first half. It continued most of the
second half, until the crowd gave a sarcastic cheer after New York
finally managed a first down -- one of just nine in the game.
Carolina used New York mistakes to aid most of its scoring.
They jumped out to a 7-0 lead after Justin Tuck was called for
illegal contact on a third-down incompletion. It kept the Panthers'
drive going, and they moved the ball efficiently with a mix of runs
by Foster and Nick Goings to put the Giants on their heels.
Smith then shed his double coverage and easily beat Terrell
Buckley into the end zone for a 22-yard touchdown reception.
Then, right before halftime, the Giants muffed a punt when the
ball hit Gibril Wilson's knee and Carolina pounced on it. Four
plays later, John Kasay kicked a 31-yard field goal for a 10-0 lead
the Panthers took into the break.
New York unraveled in the second half.
Ken Lucas intercepted Manning on the first play of New York's
second series, setting up Smith's TD run one play later. And
Manning was picked off again on the next series when McCree took a
ball intended for Jeremy Shockey at the Carolina 17. It ended the
last real scoring threat New York mustered and shattered Manning's
already shaky confidence.
Goings ran for 63 yards on 12 carries. ... Former
Giants linebacker Lawrence Taylor was honored at halftime. "I feel
like this is my house and I'm just happy to be back again."...
Kate Mara, granddaughter of late Giants owner Wellington Mara, sang
the national anthem. ... Kasay made field goals of 31, 45 and
18 yards. ... The Giants were penalized only twice for 15 yards.