CHARLOTTE -- Not many know the New York Giants better than Jim Fassel. But what he's seen lately looks foreign to him.
The former Giants coach, who led them to the Super Bowl following the 2000 season, said the current incarnation of his old club looks far different than just a few weeks ago.
"Carolina's steadily getting better, but the Giants look like they've lost some of their swagger," he said in a telephone interview. "I did their game at Dallas, and they didn't even look like the same team I watched earlier this year.
"They've really got to get their running game going, or Carolina's going to beat them."
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Fassel will provide color commentary for the Westwood One radio broadcast of Sunday night's game. He was studying his notes Friday afternoon, but knows both clubs quite well. After all, he spent seven years coaching the Giants (58-53-1), and has insight to Carolina since his old defensive coordinator was a guy named John Fox, who now coaches the Panthers.
Fassel said, in his mind, the key to the Giants reversing their two-game losing streak will be getting running back Brandon Jacobs involved early. He said Jacobs' injury absence has been far more costly to the Giants than anything surrounding wide receiver Plaxico Burress.
"I don't think Plaxico has a whole lot to do with it," he said of the Giants' recent poor offensive play. "He was suspended earlier this year and they did just fine without him. Jacobs is a much bigger deal, because they can dictate tempo that way. The key to the whole team is him and the offensive line, because when they're having success they can just maul people."
While that line has been good, Fassel said he thought the Panthers had an edge with defensive end Julius Peppers going against left tackle David Diehl. The Giants gave up eight sacks last week in Dallas, leaking all across the line.
"I like David Diehl, I drafted David Diehl, but not as a left tackle," Fassel said. "I think Julius is going to give him all he can handle, but at the same time, I'm sure the Giants are game-planning to give him some help."
Even with his personal ties to each team, Fassel said he looked forward to the matchup for home-field advantage in the NFC playoffs just like everyone else.
"To say this is going to be a good game is the biggest understatement of the week," Fassel said.
• GROSS FINED: Tackle Jordan Gross was fined $5,000 by the league Friday for his retaliatory pro wrestling-style move on Broncos linebacker D.J. Williams.
Late in last week's 30-10 win over Denver, Gross drew an unnecessary roughness penalty for hitting Williams after a play. Gross felt Williams came in late on teammate DeAngelo Williams as he was being tackled, so he fell across the Broncos linebacker, and left his knee across his throat for emphasis as he rose slowly.
• INJURY UPDATE: Defensive tackle Maake Kemoeatu came out of the training room for the first time this week, participating in Friday's practice on a limited basis.
He's listed as questionable for Sunday's game, and any snaps he could play would be a huge boost for the Panthers' run defense.
"I kind of mentioned that early in the week," Fox said. "Again, not knowing, not being a doctor, we took it one day at a time, and now he's questionable."
Though they listed him as doubtful earlier in the day, the Panthers circled back and put right guard Keydrick Vincent as out on the report later in the afternoon. The veteran right guard was the only Panthers blocker to play every snap prior to leaving late last week with a groin injury. He'll be replaced by either Jeremy Bridges or Geoff Hangartner.
Defensive tackle Gary Gibson (hand) is also questionable, though he practiced fully Friday.
Wide receiver Kenny Moore (hamstring) is out, and defensive end Hilee Taylor (calf) is doubtful. Middle linebacker Jon Beason returned Friday after dealing with a stomach bug and is listed as probable.
The Giants listed four players as questionable, including Jacobs (who was limited Friday). Right tackle Kareem McKenzie (back) was listed as probable, going through his first full day of practice Friday. Also questionable for the Giants are wide receivers Domenik Hixon (ankle) and Sinorice Moss (calf) and defensive tackle Fred Robbins (shoulder).
• LET IT SNOW: Quarterback Jake Delhomme's never been much of a snow guy. Growing up in Breaux Bridge, La., he never had much opportunity.
In fact, he said this week the only time he's played in snow was in Green Bay earlier this year, when he launched a late, essentially game-winning bomb to Steve Smith just as the flurries started to fall.
"I have to be honest with you -- I have never played in a snow game," Delhomme said. "Not in a snowstorm. Not with it coming down. I have played with snow all around the field and things like that. Green Bay it started coming down. Our games in southwest Louisiana, that snow wasn't exactly pelting us there."
• NO PLAX, NO PROBLEM: Even though there's a big drop-off in their offensive talent without Burress, Fox said he hasn't seen much difference in the Giants' passing game without him.
"They run the same offense," Fox said. "They haven't retooled what they're doing. At this point in the season, that's understandable. We didn't change our offense when we were without Steve Smith those first two games. That's why you have 53 men on the roster. You keep those guys with the idea that there's a good chance ... they are going to play at some point in the season for you. So I've not seen any change as far as what they're doing in their offense."