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Carolina quarterback Jake Delhomme has been under fire lately, and this week, his critics might get their wish.
Chris Weinke could make his first start in over four years for the injured Delhomme Sunday when the Panthers host the Giants in a matchup between two teams battling for a wild-card spot in the NFC.
Delhomme injured his throwing hand when it hit an opposing player’s helmet in the Panthers’ 27-24 loss at Philadelphia on Monday. He missed practice with a sprained right thumb on Wednesday and is listed as questionable for this game.
“It’s sore,” Delhomme said. “If I played any other position, there would be no question I’d play, but it’s a pretty important part of the throwing process of holding on, so we’ll see.”
Delhomme has made 65 consecutive starts, including playoff games, since taking over for Rodney Peete at halftime of the 2003 season opener. He led the Panthers to the Super Bowl that season, but many have called for him to be benched as Carolina (6-6) has struggled this year, blowing fourth-quarter leads in five losses, including Monday.
Delhomme has a tendency to throw costly interceptions, and threw picks on Carolina’s final two possessions against the Eagles, including one in the end zone with 25 seconds left. Coach John Fox has stated repeatedly that he is sticking with Delhomme, but the injury could leave him with no choice.
“Well, I’m the quarterback, and when you’re a quarterback and you’re not winning, you should get criticism,” said Delhomme, who has 15 touchdowns and 11 interceptions this season. “That’s part of the deal. Fair or unfair, we’re only 6-6, so whether or not it’s fair, that’s something I keep to myself anyway, because I know that it doesn’t do any good.
“Certainly I feel like I could make better plays at the end of the game. We were making that stride last week, but it just didn’t happen.”
Weinke hasn’t started since Oct. 20, 2002, at Atlanta, but did take over for an injured Delhomme early last season in Detroit and threw the winning touchdown pass with 2:41 left. He took snaps with the first team on Wednesday.
“I’ve said all along I come in every week and prepare to be ready to play if something happens to Jake,” Weinke said. “Obviously, not knowing the situation this week, I’ll continue to prepare, and if he’s not ready to go, I’ll be ready to go. If I get that opportunity, I’ll be excited.”
The Panthers’ loss on Monday dropped them into a four-way tie with the Giants (6-6), Eagles and Falcons in the wild-card race. New York has dropped four in a row, including last Sunday’s 23-20 loss to Dallas.
That defeat came one week after the Giants blew a 21-0 fourth-quarter lead in a 24-21 loss at Tennessee.
“This is not what we planned at the beginning of the season or where we feel we should be after these last two games,” rookie defensive tackle Barry Cofield said. “We definitely feel like we are still a playoff team. We feel if we get to the playoffs, regardless of what seed it is, we feel like we can get through the NFC. We feel like we can compete against anyone.”
Despite the setbacks, New York is remaining optimistic. Punter Jeff Feagles, who played in his 300th consecutive game last week, reminded his teammates of last season’s Super Bowl champion Pittsburgh Steelers, who were 7-5 before winning their last four regular-season games.
“The bottom line is, we have a chance,” Feagles said. “We had a chance three weeks ago when we were in first place, and it seems to me that some people didn’t understand that.”
The Giants had nine penalties for 94 yards against the Cowboys and continued to make costly mistakes during the game, a trend that has haunted them lately.
However, there were some reasons for optimism. Quarterback Eli Manning ended a three-game slump by throwing for 270 yards and two touchdowns, the defense had two interceptions and held Dallas to less than 27 minutes in time of possession, and the team battled back to tie the game three times.
“We know we have four games left,” said Manning, who has thrown six interceptions and four touchdown passes during the losing skid. “If we win four games, we’ll be in the playoffs for sure. If we win three our of four, we might have a shot. Our focus is we have to win four games.”
The Panthers have dropped two straight for the third time this season. Star receiver Steve Smith, who ranks sixth in the NFL with 958 receiving yards despite missing the first two games of the season, has just nine catches for 88 yards in the last two contests.
Carolina’s defense, with its vaunted front four, has recorded just two sacks in the last two games. Defensive end Julius Peppers, who had 11 sacks in the first nine games, has none in the last three.
“It will test our character,” said Fox, who served as the Giants’ defensive coordinator from 1997-2001. “We have four games left and we’re fortunate we have four. We made some improvement offensively. The turnovers were a key and they made some big plays on defense, particularly that last one.”
Running back DeShaun Foster, who has missed the last two games with a sprained elbow, practiced Wednesday and is listed as probable. Fox said that if he is available, he will start over rookie DeAngelo Williams, who gained 137 yards in place of Foster.
The Panthers are 3-0 against the Giants, including a 23-0 road victory in the first round of last season’s playoffs.