No key wide receiver, top running back, right offensive tackle, or third wide receiver?
No problem, not even on the road, during a short week.
With wide receivers Hakeem Nicks and Domenik Hixon, running back Ahmad Bradshaw, and right offensive tackle David Diehl all sitting out with an assortment of injuries, a pair of reserves – running back Andre Brown and wide receiver Ramses Barden – each stepped up with a career night when the New York Giants needed it most.
Brown, the Giants’ fourth-round draft pick in 2009 out of North Carolina State, who entered the season with two NFL carries for a grand total of minus-1 yard after being cut seven different times – but who finally broke out with 13 rushes for a 71 yards and his first career touchdown in a win over Tampa Bay last week – had a game-high 113 yards on 20 carries and a pair of rushing touchdowns in his first professional start to help lead New York (2-1) to a 36-7 thrashing over the Carolina Panthers (1-2) at Bank of America Stadium in Charlotte, North Carolina on Thursday night.
“To be pulled out of a regular season game, and [for head] coach [Tom Coughlin] to tell me, ‘You did enough for the night,’ was surreal,” said the smiling yet still relatively inexperienced Brown on the NFL Network after the game.
Barden meanwhile, whom the Giants selected out of Cal-Poly, one round ahead of Brown, but who only had 16 career receptions when the evening began, led all receivers by matching the number of receptions (nine) he had all of last season, for a career-high 138 yards.
His long-awaited emergence was the latest example of quarterback Eli Manning’s outstanding ability to make virtually any receiver at his disposal a highly productive offensive weapon.
Once again, one or more pass catchers is lost to an injury or a free agency defection over the past few years, and it’s no worry for New York.
Manning (27-35, 288 yards, touchdown), as he has repeatedly done over the past few years, often helps turn the next receiver in line on the depth chart into an instant star for at least one game – especially a big, athletic, 6-foot-6, 224-pound target like Barden.
NFL Network analyst Deion Sanders, who made a Hall of Fame career of stopping quarterbacks like Manning, admitted a lack of faith in the Giants’ chances to beat the Panthers because of a Big Blue roster that seemed more black-and-blue than Carolina’s uniforms.
Sanders told Manning, “Ain’t none of us picked you [to beat Carolina],” to which Manning, the unflappable leader of a team which under the direction of its ninth-year quarterback, has often played its best under the most adverse of circumstances, coolly responded, “We appreciate that.”
Manning pointed to a focus on getting off to a fast start as the thing which he said, “Set the tempo for the whole game.”
While the Giants’ defense forced three punts and grabbed an interception on the Panthers’ first four possessions, Manning led his team to scores on New York’s first four drives and on seven of its first eight.
The Giants took the opening kickoff and used an eight-yard completion from Manning to Barden on the game’s second play, and two plays later, a 31-yard run by Brown, to march 80 yards on eight plays to take a 7-0 lead with a 14-yard touchdown pass from Manning to wide tight end Martellus Bennett (six catches, 73 yards, touchdown) just 3:22 into the game.
A former Dallas Cowboy for four years, now in his first season with New York, Bennett became the first Giant to catch a touchdown pass in his first three games with the franchise.
New York’s next possession began with a nice change-of-direction run of 16 yards by Brown and a 21-yard catch by Barden to give the Giants a first down in Carolina territory. That led to a 10-0 lead with 3:46 left in the quarter on a 47-yard kick – the first of five made field goals in as many attempts – by kicker Lawrence Tynes, who after kicking New York into the Super Bowl in overtime, in last year’s NFC title game, and going a perfect 8-for-8 in the preseason, is likewise, 8-for-8 in the regular season.
Receptions of 20 and 14 yards by Barden followed a 19-yard rush by Brown on the Giants’ next possession, during a nine-play, 72-yard drive that concluded with Brown’s first NFL score – a one-yard plunge that extended New York’s lead to a commanding 17-0 lead 2:57 into the second quarter.
Two more catches by Barden, of 21 and 23 yards, including a beautiful reaching grab over the middle, highlighted an 11-play, 67-yard drive that Tynes ended with a 49-yard field goal which pushed the Giants’ advantage to 20-0 with 3:13 left in the opening half.
As if Carolina wasn’t in enough trouble at that point, it gift-wrapped New York’s next score by fumbling the opening kickoff of the third quarter on a hit and recovery by Spencer Paysinger at the Panthers’ 19-yard line.
Tynes made his third field goal after that, to make it 23-0 just 2:11 into the third quarter.
The Panthers finally got their offense going on their next possession, going 66 yards on 12 plays to cut their deficit to 23-7 on a one-yard touchdown leap by quarterback Cam Newton (16-30, 242 yards, three interceptions, two sacks; six carries for just six yards) with 6:25 remaining in the third period.
That was all the noise the normally dynamic dual-threat would make against a stout New York defense that held him in check.
Bennett started the Giants’ next drive with a 29-yard catch to spark a ten-play, 63-yard trip that ended with a 36-yard field goal by Tynes that increased New York’s lead to 26-7 with 50 seconds left in the quarter.
Linebacker Michael Boley, who had five interceptions in four years with Atlanta, but none during his first three years as a Giant, picked off Newton on Carolina’s next possession, to tie him for the NFL lead this year.
Boley also combined on a sack with burgeoning star defensive end Jason Pierre-Paul, and fellow defensive end Osi Umenyiora added another sack.
Eight plays after Boley’s pick, Brown added his second one-yard touchdown run after catches of ten yards by Barden and 12 yards by Bennett, to balloon New York’s lead to 33-7 with 9:40 to go in the game.
Another interception of Newton, by safety Stevie Brown, in the end zone, was returned 44 yards, but the Giants went three-and-out for the only time in the game. However, a muffed punt led to a 27-yard field goal by Tynes to close the scoring with 1:09 left.
Newton’s first pick, on the Panthers’ fourth possession of the game, late in the first half, was the first career interception by rookie third-round draft pick Jayron Hosley, who subsequently added to New York’s injury woes when he left the game with a strained hamstring.
Unfortunately for the Giants, that was only part of the health problems they suffered in their secondary. Starting safety Antrel Rolle bruised his knee on and end zone camera and starting left cornerback Corey Webster left the stadium in a cast after continuing to play with bone that he broke in his right hand earlier in the game.
Despite running for a solid average of 4.5 yards per carry, speedy running back DeAngelo Williams was held to a harmless 50 yards on 11 rushes with the Panthers trailing and forced to throw more, and with injured running back Jonathan Stewart sidelined.
Tight end Greg Olsen led Carolina with 98 yards on seven receptions, but the always dangerous wide receiver Steve Smith, aside from a 33-yard catch, had just three other receptions for a total of 53 additional yards which didn’t do much damage.
An exasperated Smith told NFL Network reporters in the locker room, “We just got our tails whooped from the beginning to the end, in every aspect, and it was pretty disgusting.”
Winning their road opener after splitting two games at home gives New York a chance to navigate well through a difficult first quarter of the season with a possible winning record. The defending Super Bowl champions are in the midst of a month during which they are alternating between short and long weeks, with three nationally televised games over their first four weeks.
Next up, will be the Giants’ second stretch of ten days between games, which will give them extra time to prepare and rest some key wounded contributors before a Sunday night NFC East showdown at first-place Philadelphia (2-0) on September 30th.