Carolina's run defense crumbles without Kemo

Posted by ESPN.com's Pat Yasinskas

EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. -- Their brief reign as the NFC's best and hottest team is over - at least for the moment.

On a frigid night in Giants Stadium, the Carolina Panthers cooled off.

"Carolina was playing better football than anybody else the last eight weeks,'' New York Giants coach Tom Coughlin said.

The Panthers played good football for most of Sunday night, but it wasn't enough to knock off the defending Super Bowl champions or grab the No. 1 seed in the NFC playoffs. If the Panthers are going to the Super Bowl, they'll probably have to come back through the Meadowlands in January.

Carolina's John Kasay missed a long field goal attempt at the end of regulation and the Panthers squandered a huge night by running back DeAngelo Williams in a 34-28 overtime loss to the Giants.

The Panthers (11-4) could have claimed the No. 1 seed with a victory, but now they enter a world of uncertainty. They have clinched a playoff spot, but nothing else. The Atlanta Falcons (10-5) remain in the NFC South picture and host hapless St. Louis in the regular-season finale.

The road isn't quite as easy for the Panthers. They have to travel to New Orleans, where the Saints will be playing for pride and a winning season.

Was it a case of opportunity lost for Carolina? We'll see in the next few weeks. The Panthers could still end up with the NFC South crown and the No. 2 seed in the NFC.

But this was the kind of loss that could end up hurting the Panthers. If Carolina crumbles, this may not be the kind of game that kills the momentum that was building the past two months. Losing in overtime to a team like the Giants could make the Panthers stronger.

If nothing else, they now know they can play with anybody on the road, and they did that without being able to do one of the two basic things that coach John Fox usually thrives on. Quite simply, the Panthers couldn't stop the run, and that's why they lost.

With a swirling wind blowing most of the night, the Giants were able to run for 301 yards. Derrick Ward ran for 215 yards on 15 carries. Oh, by the way, Brandon Jacobs, who was returning from an injury, chipped in with 87 yards and three touchdowns on 24 carries.

Those numbers violate what Fox has preached since the day he was hired by the Panthers in 2002. In his hiring press conference at Bank of America Stadium, Fox said his teams would stop the run on defense and run the ball on offense, and he has been throwing out those lines, and not much else, since.

The Panthers did run the ball on offense. Williams gained 108 yards on 24 carries and scored four touchdowns and the Panthers had a 21-10 lead in the second quarter. Four touchdowns usually are enough for Carolina to win.

But this was far from a usual night for Carolina. You may never have heard of Maake Kemoeatu before now, but he ended up being one of the biggest story lines of the game. Kemoeatu didn't even play, and that had a lot to do with why the Panthers lost and Ward ended up with a rushing average (14.3 yards a carry) that looked more like a basketball scoring average.

Kemoeatu is a 350-pound defensive tackle, who usually doesn't show up very much in the stats. But, with Kemoeatu sitting out with an ankle injury, the Giants were able to run up the stats.

Does the absence of one role player really make such a big difference?

In this case, it did. Kemoeatu became the first Carolina defensive player to miss a start because of injury this season and, amazing as it may seem, he may be the defensive player the Panthers could least afford to be without.

The Giants realized that and attacked the middle of Carolina's defensive line, which doesn't include a defensive tackle nearly as big as Kemoeatu. The Giants ran right at Damione Lewis, who is more of a pass-rush specialist, journeyman Darwin Walker and reserve Gary Gibson, who rotated in.

That had a trickle-down effect as middle linebacker Jon Beason, who usually gets blocking attention taken away by Kemoeatu, wasn't able to run free. Instead, Ward and Jacobs ran free, particularly after halftime as the Giants outscored Carolina 21-7 the rest of the way.

There's no question the Panthers are a better defensive team when Kemoeatu is on the field. But there's no telling how long it will take him to get healthy, and the loss sure isn't going to help that process.

A win against the Giants would have guaranteed the Panthers a first-round bye and, perhaps, given Kemoeatu more time to recover. The Panthers still can get a first-round bye if they clinch the No. 2 seed next week.

Maybe Kemoeatu will return in time to play against the Saints. That would go a long way in helping heal the defense. Or maybe the injury will linger and be Carolina's downfall.

If the Panthers really are going to bounce back and challenge for a spot in the Super Bowl, they have to be able to do both of the basics in Fox's formula.