Rookie quarterback Eli Manning is ready to be an NFL starter. If the New York Giants could say the same thing about the members of their offensive line and their defense, they would be a lot better off.

Manning, the top overall pick in April's draft, wasn't brilliant in his first preseason start Thursday night against the Carolina Panthers in Charlotte. But he certainly looked like he belonged on the field, completing 9 of 15 passes for 117 yards in the first half of the Giants' 27-20 loss.

He led a pair of field-goal drives and might have had a 36-yard touchdown pass to Amani Toomer if the wide receiver hadn't slowed just a bit after getting behind the Carolina secondary on the Giants' second drive of the night, leaving him unable to catch up to Manning's slightly overthrown ball. Toomer did help his prized young quarterback with a superb leaping catch in the second quarter for a 21-yard gain.

Manning remained composed in the face of a hard-charging Carolina defense, playing before a loud crowd in a nationally televised game. He read coverages properly and threw to the right places. He recognized blitzes and made the correct adjustments. He moved around in the pocket well. He drew Panthers defenders offside with some hard snap counts. With Manning in the game, the Giants used a quick-hitting passing approach and moved the ball effectively despite their blocking deficiencies, and Manning didn't even have the luxury of throwing to Jeremy Shockey because the tight end still is recovering from his June foot surgery.

The Giants again looked like a bad team in the making. But Manning again looked like at least the equal of veteran Kurt Warner, who relieved Manning with 1-1/2 minutes to play in the first half and completed nine of 11 passes for 71 yards but was sacked four times and threw a fourth-quarter interception that was returned 49 yards for a touchdown by safety William Hampton.

Some observers maintain that Warner, the two-time league most valuable player for the St. Louis Rams, should begin the season as the Giants' starter to protect Manning -- especially with the club scheduled to face the powerful Philadelphia Eagles in the Sept. 12 opener. But it is becoming increasingly clear that Manning has all the tools and the only thing standing between him and being an excellent NFL quarterback is game experience, so why delay the process? He wouldn't be what would keep the Giants from winning this season. There are many, many other things that will keep the Giants from winning.

Their rebuilt offensive line was overrun by a Carolina defense that was without Pro Bowl tackle Kris Jenkins but still sacked Manning and Warner on three straight plays late in the second quarter. And the Giants' starting defense had its second pitiable showing in two exhibition games. Panthers quarterback Jake Delhomme completed 11 of 13 passes for 144 yards. He threw for one touchdown and ran for another as Carolina rolled up 185 yards of total offense in the first half and took a 17-6 lead into the break before turning the game over to reserves.

In the first halves of their two preseason games, including an opening win over the Kansas City Giants, the Giants' defense has surrendered 41 points, 31 first downs and 496 total yards while opposing quarterbacks have completed 31 of 41 passes for 427 yards.

The Giants were without four key defensive players -- end Keith Washington and linebackers Barrett Green, Nick Greisen and Carlos Emmons -- Thursday. But starting cornerbacks Will Allen and William Peterson were beaten repeatedly and Panthers star wideout Steve Smith ran virtually unencumbered through the secondary en route to five first-half receptions for 83 yards. The Giants' coach has changed from Jim Fassel to Tom Coughlin, but it looks like more of the same for a team that ended last season with eight consecutive defeats.

Dayne's Fumbles

So much for the good feelings about former Heisman Trophy winner Ron Dayne's two long touchdown runs against the Chiefs. All of that was undone in the third quarter Thursday when the tailback fumbled on consecutive plays at the Panthers' goal line.

The first fumble was nullified when the officials botched the call. Although replays showed the ball was loose from Dayne's grasp before he hit the ground, the officials signaled a touchdown. The Panthers issued an instant-replay challenge, but that can't result in a change of possession on such a play because the play was whistled dead on the field. After the replay, the officials called Dayne down by contact and gave the ball back to the Giants inside the Carolina 1-yard line. Dayne carried again and fumbled again, but the Panthers' recovery was nullified by an offside penalty. Dayne got a third try and finally held on to the ball and got into the end zone for a touchdown.

Dayne got his weight under control and asked Coughlin for a second chance after becoming a forgotten man under Fassel last season, when he was on the inactive list for all 16 games, but he still isn't a tough short-yardage runner and his goal-line giveaways Thursday aren't likely to be forgotten by the demanding Coughlin. . . .

Two of the Panthers' sacks Thursday were by linebacker Mark Fields, who's back in the Carolina lineup after missing the entire 2003 season after being diagnosed with Hodgkin's disease. In only his second game since being told by his doctors that he's cancer-free, Fields on Thursday resembled the fast, athletic pass rusher who had 7-1/2 sacks for the Panthers in 2002. He sacked Manning on his final play and Warner on his first play, and overmatched the Giants' tight ends and running backs who attempted to block him on blitzes. . . .

Another bad sign for the Giants: When Panthers defensive tackle Brentson Buckner jumped offside and took a free, unnecessary shot at Manning by knocking over the quarterback, none of the rookie's teammates reacted strongly. Some Giants players had a few words for Buckner, but that's the sort of situation in which most NFL coaches would like to see a player get angry and send a message that his quarterback can't be treated like that.

O. Smith Suspended

The NFL has suspended Minnesota Vikings tailback Onterrio Smith for four regular-season games for a violation of the league's substance-abuse policy, an NFL source confirmed this morning, speaking on the condition of anonymity because of the confidentiality of the drug-testing program. Smith, who is slated to be the top backup to Vikings starting tailback Michael Bennett, will forfeit four game checks totaling slightly more than $71,000. . . .

The Indianapolis Colts finally are making progress in contract negotiations with safety Bob Sanders, their still-unsigned second-round draft selection, and could complete a deal within the next few days. Sanders and San Diego Chargers quarterback Philip Rivers are the only unsigned picks. Chargers officials have had several brief conversations with Rivers's agent, Jimmy Sexton, this week, and the two sides might make a push toward reaching an agreement this weekend. If they can't do so, the parties seem resigned to the contract dispute spilling over into the regular season.

Cardinals, Dolphins After J. Jackson

The Cleveland Browns are dangling third-string tailback James Jackson in trade discussions and have received interest from the Arizona Cardinals as well as the Miami Dolphins, a source said late Thursday. The Cardinals are looking to replace the injured Marcel Shipp, and the Dolphins are looking to replace the retired Ricky Williams . . .

The Pittsburgh Steelers suffered a tough loss Thursday when an MRI exam showed that guard Kendall Simmons would need season-ending knee surgery for a torn anterior cruciate ligament suffered Wednesday. Keydrick Vincent will get the first shot to take over for Simmons. . . .

Quarterback Doug Flutie has returned from knee surgery and participated in the Chargers' practices the past two days. He had his first full practice Thursday after taking part in light drills Wednesday. He is penciled in to back up Drew Brees, with Rivers absent.

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