Tue, Jan 10, 2006 - Page 20 News List

NY Giants find there's nowhere to run

WILD-CARD PLAYOFFS Running back Tiki Barber was held to a season-low 41 yards as a swarming Panthers defense shut down New York's once surging offense

AP , EAST RUTHERFORD, NEW JERSEY AND CINCINNATI, OHIO

Giants running back Tiki Barber is stopped for a loss by Panthers Michael Rucker, left, Will Witherspoon, center, and Julius Peppers during the first quarter in East Rutherford, New Jersey, on Sunday. Barber was held to 41 yards rushing on 13 carries for the game. Carolina defeated New York 23-0.

PHOTO: AP

The Carolina Panthers' defense played like coach John Fox was in the New York huddle, spying on his former team.

The Giants had no such insight into the Panthers, allowing Steve Smith and DeShaun Foster to beat them at their own game in their own place.

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 Brentson Buckner.

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 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 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.

DeShaun 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 109 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."

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