CHARLOTTE -- The Carolina Panthers aren't sure if they're going to have their big guy or not. But they're pretty sure New York will, and the combination of those factors is cause for concern.
They expect to see 264-pound running back Brandon Jacobs back on the field Sunday, when they play the Giants with home field advantage in the NFC playoffs on the line. They're far less certain about nose tackle Maake Kemoeatu, who left last week's game against Denver with a right ankle injury. Kemoeatu didn't practice Wednesday. He left Bank of America Stadium on Monday on crutches and wearing a walking boot.
Coach John Fox offered nothing but his standard "day-to-day" evaluation when asked about Kemoeatu, but several teammates made his ability to come back sound less definite.
"We're going to miss him, but I guess that's what backups are for," said defensive end Charles Johnson.
"Injuries are a part of the game," Fox said. "People around the league deal with it every week; the Giants have had to deal with it; we've had to deal with it. We've got guys on the team we feel good about that have played a lot of football all season long.
"It's not like Maake or anybody out there plays every play. We've got guys out there that have made great contributions, and we'll expect the same thing this week against New York."
They'd have to use Darwin Walker and Gary Gibson in his stead. The 294-pound Walker's more of an interior pass-rusher. Gibson's a good run defender, but listed at 285 pounds. That's 60 pounds short of Kemoeatu's listed weight (345) and probably 80 or more south of reality. They use ends Tyler Brayton and Johnson inside on rush downs, but they might also have to rotate in more inside considering the potential numbers shortage.
"I think they game-plan him," middle linebacker Jon Beason said of Kemoeatu's impact. "You can't just try to single-block that guy or he'll destroy you. If he can take up two for me, it allows me to run free and make a lot of plays."
That's something the Panthers simply can't replicate without him. Using smaller guys opposite Damione Lewis will cause them to change scheme, since none of the remaining defensive tackles can anchor over the nose the way Kemoeatu can.
"It's going to definitely be a difference not having Kemo in there, we're going to miss him," linebacker Thomas Davis said. "Hopefully, we still can get him, who knows how it's going to work out. We'll see. If not, we'll just go with what we have.
"It makes a world of difference when we can flow freely to the ball and we don't have to worry about linemen. And Kemo's done a great job this year of keeping them off of us. So that's why we've been able to make plays, and we'll definitely miss that if he's not in there."
The Giants have clearly missed Jacobs, and they haven't been the same offense the last month, while he's dealt with knee problems. He missed the Nov. 23 game at Arizona and last week's at Dallas, and their production was way off in the two games between. They have good complementary backs in Derrick Ward and Ahmad Bradshaw, but they don't bring the same bruising style.
"Obviously," Fox said. "All three are very qualified or you wouldn't be the No. 1 rushing team."
They're the league's leading rushing team at 148.7 yards per game, though the Panthers have narrowed that gap (they're fourth at 146.1) in the last month. After the first 10 games, the Giants were averaging 172.7 yards.
"You've got to tackle well," Davis said. "The biggest thing, you see a lot of guys in position to make the play and they're just not tackling these backs. That's one thing we've got to concentrate and focus on this week, we've got to make sure we tackle well."
Fox expects to see Jacobs and had the standard praise for the entire Giants offense, which is fourth in the league in scoring.
"They're just relentless with it," linebacker Na'il Diggs said when asked about their running game. "It's nothing difficult as far as scheme-wise. They're just going to line up and run what they run and you've got to stop it. That's their philosophy and they're good at it. Jacobs has got 1,000 yards and if he hadn't missed the past couple weeks he'd be well over it. They've got a nice triple threat, the other backs are more scatty and make it happen for them."
Of course, the Panthers see a good version of that each day in practice.
When they're running the ball, quarterback Jake Delhomme refers to the "body blow" affect it has on defenses.
Adding a heavyweight like Jacobs only adds to the punch, so the Panthers defense knows they have to strike first.
Diggs grinned when asked how to combat a team which used the strategy Delhomme so often refers.
"You have to give the body blows on defense," Diggs said. "On offense, body blow is a good term to use when you're delivering the blow. On the other side, we'd say we have to attack first before they do. The key to stopping the run is really just attacking and getting physical with them before they get a chance to get physical with you. Our philosophy on defense is to hit you first, to throw the first body blow.
"So really, it comes down to who throws the blows, who throws them best and who's going to fall first."