By Mark Maske
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, January 9, 2006
EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J., Jan. 8 -- A season of rapid progress and bold achievements for quarterback Eli Manning, tailback Tiki Barber and the rest of the New York Giants ended with the meekest of exits from the playoffs. They offered practically no resistance as the Carolina Panthers bullied their way into a conference semifinal with a 23-0 triumph Sunday afternoon at Giants Stadium in a first-round NFC playoff game.
Most of those in an increasingly disenchanted crowd of 79,378 had headed for the exits long before the Giants were done sleepwalking through their first postseason shutout at home since a 28-0 loss to the Washington Redskins on Dec. 19, 1943. The Giants became the first NFL team to be shut out at home in a postseason game since the Tampa Bay Buccaneers lost the NFC title game to the visiting Los Angeles Rams, 9-0, on Jan. 6, 1980.
"It is shocking because we hadn't really had a performance like this before," Manning said. "We've always found a way to move the ball and score points, but today we couldn't do anything. If I had a reason why, I'd tell you. It's disappointing to end the season this way. . . . Now this is the performance we have to think about for the next months and the offseason."
The Giants' exit mars a season in which they won their first division title since the 2000 season and leaves the Redskins as the lone NFC East club still playing. The Giants managed only nine first downs and 132 yards on offense. They committed five turnovers, and Manning was responsible for four of them. He threw three interceptions, lost a fumble and was sacked four times in his playoff debut. Barber, the league's second-leading rusher during the regular season, ran for only 41 yards on 13 carries, perhaps slowed by the sprained ankle he suffered during last weekend's triumph at Oakland that clinched the division crown.
The Panthers, who will play Sunday at Chicago, dominated every aspect of the game. They used their running game to control the ball for almost 43 of the game's 60 minutes. Starting tailback DeShaun Foster ran for 151 yards and backup Nick Goings added 63 more.
"We just didn't tackle," Giants defensive end Michael Strahan said.
Panthers wide receiver Steve Smith caught a touchdown pass and ran for a touchdown on an end-around. Ten of quarterback Jake Delhomme's 15 completions went to Smith. Place kicker John Kasay provided three field goals, and the defense took it from there.
"Our team played about as good as we have all season at the right time," Panthers Coach John Fox said.
The Panthers were about as unpredictable during the regular season as a team that goes 11-5 can be, but they're on an upswing now. They had a dominating performance in a 44-11 win at Atlanta in their regular season finale, which clinched a wild-card playoff berth.
They started a bit sluggishly Sunday but moved in front in the second quarter when Smith beat veteran cornerback Terrell Buckley on a post pattern and grabbed Delhomme's pass for a 22-yard touchdown, then celebrated by lying on his back in the end zone and doing a snow angel -- minus the snow. Kasay connected on a 31-yard field goal in the final minute of the first half after the Giants' Gibril Wilson had a rolling Panthers' punt bounce off his leg for a turnover, and Smith made it 17-0 in the third quarter by taking a handoff from Delhomme and going 12 yards around the left end.
"In my opinion, he should have been the MVP," Fox said of his standout wide receiver, who led the league in receiving yards during the regular season. "That's what I thought of his regular season performance. . . . He showed his value to us today."
Kasay added a pair of fourth-quarter field goals, and the boos from the crowd came louder and more regularly until the fans began leaving and the line of cars trying to get on the New Jersey Turnpike backed up well before the game ended. The day got progressively worse for Manning, who threw interceptions on three straight Giants possessions in the third and fourth quarters and then fumbled on the possession after that.
Manning completed 10 of 18 passes for only 113 yards. His favorite target, wideout Plaxico Burress, was held without a catch. Still, the Panthers did not gloat about how bad they made the second-year quarterback look.
"He's a young guy, and it's a big stage out there," Carolina defensive end Mike Rucker said. "It's hard not to make mistakes."
Said Panthers defensive end Brentson Buckner: "He wasn't losing his cool. He wasn't yelling at his linemen or anything when he got knocked down. But I think he got frustrated. He was making mistakes, throwing interceptions, and you could tell he started pressing."
Fox, a former Giants defensive coordinator, said he told Barber as the two left the field after the game not to let the result make him forget all the good things he and his teammates did this season. The Giants rallied from going 6-10 last season with a first-year coach, Tom Coughlin, and a rookie quarterback enduring his growing pains, and became one of the NFC's top teams this season.
"We picked the most inopportune time to have one of our worst games of the season," Strahan said. "But at the same time, you have to reflect on the whole season, and you can't be disappointed. We came further than anyone expected us to come, maybe even further than we expected."
The Panthers, meantime, signaled that they could be a major factor in the scramble the next two weekends for the NFC's Super Bowl spot.
"You can't miss us," Smith said, "because we're on the radar."