CHARLOTTE, N.C. — The Carolina Panthers could learn a thing or two from Eli Manning when it comes to finishing games.
After losing six games last season in which they were either tied or leading in the fourth quarter, the Panthers are still learning how to put away an opponent.
It’s a skill Manning has pretty much mastered.
Manning, whom the Panthers will face Thursday night when they host the New York Giants, has become one of the league’s most proficient “finishers,” on par with former greats Dan Marino and John Elway.
Manning has engineered 26 fourth-quarter comeback wins for the Giants, five of those in the postseason. He had an NFL-record seven fourth-quarter comebacks last season, including one on the biggest stage of all when he led the Giants to a come-from-behind victory against New England in the Super Bowl.
“I mean, the guy is Captain Comeback,” said Panthers cornerback Captain Munnerlyn.
And he’s at it again.
Manning’s latest mini-miracle came Sunday when he shrugged off three second-quarter interceptions and led the Giants back from a 14-point deficit with three fourth-quarter touchdowns to beat the pesky Buccaneers 41-34, adding to his growing legacy by throwing for 510 yards.
Giants coach Tom Coughlin said Manning has the perfect mentality to handle pressure situations.
“He might make a mistake and I might be ranting and raving about it, but it doesn’t get him down,” Coughlin said. “He’s disappointed, but he knows enough and he has enough mental toughness that he moves on to the very next play and doesn’t let it affect the next series. And that’s a great attribute for a quarterback.”
Coughlin likens Manning’s mentality to Johnny Unitas, another quarterback who was able to put mistakes behind him and move forward.
Unitas once threw five interceptions in a game against the Chicago Bears on Nov. 11, 1970, but still managed to find a way to lead the Colts to a 21-20 victory.
“You have to have that ability where you can put it behind you because you can’t afford to not think about what’s going on in the current series or the next play or whatever,” Coughlin said. “He has that ability. … And the guys around him trust him and believe in him, and that’s huge.”
Last year’s Super Bowl MVP said it’s all about confidence and playing fearless.
“You can’t get gun-shy or be scared to throw an interception,” Manning said. “You know you have to make better decisions, but you still have to be confident in your own ability.”
The Panthers (1-1) could use a little bit of Manning’s killer instinct in the fourth quarter.
In the season opener, the Panthers couldn’t put together a drive in the fourth quarter and lost 16-10 to Tampa Bay.
Even in last week’s 35-27 win over New Orleans, the Panthers struggled to put away the Saints. They went three-and-out on their last two offensive possessions, giving Drew Brees a chance to tie the game with less than two minutes remaining.
It wasn’t until Jon Beason’s interception that the Panthers could finally breathe easy.
“Offensively, we could have done a better job finishing. We put our defense in a bad situation,” Cam Newton said. “If we would have finished the way we’re capable of, they wouldn’t have had the ball. All we needed was one first down. If we got the first down, we knee it three times and the game is over. That’s something we need to shore up.”
The Manning-Newton matchup is intriguing, especially with both defenses only having three days to prepare.
“If we had two weeks to prepare for them, it would be a challenge,” Coughlin said of the Panthers.
The Panthers have a variety of formations under offensive coordinator Rob Chudzinski and run the zone read option — a play where Newton sticks the ball in the gut of a running back and then gives the ball off or pulls it away and runs, pitches or throws.
It’s a scheme the Giants (1-1) aren’t familiar with, according to defensive end Justin Tuck, who is well aware how foolish Newton can make defenders look. At the same time, Tuck is confident Giants defensive coordinator Perry Fewell has a plan in place to slow down Carolina.
“He did a great job of putting together a game plan on a short week,” Tuck said. “Our plan, if executed, could give them some trouble.”
After being held to 10 yards rushing in the opener, the Panthers broke out with 219 yards on the ground against the Saints. Newton led the way with 71 yards and a touchdown, while running backs DeAngelo Williams, Jonathan Stewart and Mike Tolbert also found the end zone.
Fewell said the Giants spent a week in the offseason preparing for the uniqueness of Carolina’s offense. He plans to use a spy on Newton, as most teams do.
“I think offensively they’re doing some really good things to enhance his athletic ability,” Fewell said. “I think the sky is the limit for this guy.”
Panthers second-year coach Ron Rivera wouldn’t downplay the significance of a victory over the defending champions in a nationally televised night game for his club’s confidence — or the excitement it would bring to the fan base.
“This is a big stage for us,” Rivera said. “It’s been a long time coming that we’ve played a game like this… It’s the type of game that can show that we’re really making progress. To come back and play really well would speak well as to where we’re headed as a football team.”