Giants lock up home field with OT win

December 22, 2008 3:00:27 AM PST
The New York Giants started the season as the team to beat in the NFL, and that hasn't changed with a week left in the regular season. Shaking off two straight losses that made them a question mark heading into the postseason, the Super Bowl champions took a major step on the road to repeating by earning the NFC's top seed for the postseason with a thrilling 34-28 come-from-behind overtime victory over the Carolina Panthers on Sunday night.

"The only message we sent tonight is that this team is getting that swagger back that we had last year at the end of the season," middle linebacker Antonio Pierce said. "They're going to fight for 60 minutes, overtime, cold weather, being down. To keep fighting, that's what I'm most proud of."

By earning the top seed, the Giants (12-3) guaranteed that the conference playoffs will run through the Meadowlands, a plus because Tom Coughlin's team can run the ball when the frigid, swirling winds of Giants Stadium bog down offenses.

That was the key to this winner-take-all game.

Derrick Ward ran for a career-best 215 yards on 15 carries and set up Brandon Jacobs' winning 2-yard touchdown run with 9:57 left in overtime as the Giants ran for a season-best 301 yards.

"The last two weeks we've been disgraceful running the ball," said Ward, whose total was the fourth highest in team history. "We've had our doubters, that we hit our peak in the past. We knew that we could run the ball. That's what the New York Giants are. We run the ball."

The fans who braved the numbing wind chill loved watching this one. They tossed snowballs onto the field earlier and threw it like confetti when Jacobs won the game.

New York had clinched a first-round bye earlier in the day when Atlanta beat Minnesota, then added the icing on this frosty night by beating Carolina (11-4).

"If you talked to everyone, there was no panic here," guard Chris Snee said. "We were still confident in ourselves. We didn't hit the panic button, stuck to the run and made it work."

New York forced overtime when Jacobs plowed into the end zone from a yard out, and Manning hit Domenik Hixon on a slant pattern for the tying 2-point conversion with 3:21 to play.

Jacobs, who was sidelined in last week's loss to Dallas with a knee injury, finished with three short touchdown runs, and Manning and Kevin Boss combined on a 4-yard touchdown pass as the Giants found the cold and wind to their liking.

"You never know what the weather is going to be like here," Manning said. "We're used to playing in those cold and windy games and I would like to think we would have the advantage in some of those."

The loss spoiled a team record-tying, four-touchdown performance by Panthers running back DeAngelo Williams, who gave Carolina a 28-20 lead with a 30-yard TD run 2 minutes into the final quarter.

He also scored on runs of 13, 5 and 1 yards.

The Panthers, who have qualified for the playoffs, can clinch the NFC South and the No. 2 seed with a win at New Orleans next weekend.

"Disappointing would be putting it mildly," Panthers quarterback Jake Delhomme said. "The road to the Super Bowl goes through New York. We had a chance. We didn't get it done. We've got to get back to work and get ready for New Orleans."

The Panthers had a chance to win the game in regulation but the swirling wind pushed John Kasey's 50-yard field-goal attempt wide left, sparking some more celebratory snow throwing by Giants fans.

The Giants won the coin toss in overtime and couldn't generate anything, and the Panthers followed suit on their possession.

New York nearly lost the ball before its winning drive when R.W. McQuarters muffed a punt at the Giants 13. He emerged from a pile with the ball and then Ward took over.

On first-and-10 from the 13, Ward went 51 yards to the Carolina 36. Three plays later on third-and-7, he went 14 yards to the 19 and followed that with a 17-yarder to the 2. Jacobs scored on the next play.

"We just didn't play well at all upfront," Panthers defensive end Julius Peppers said. "That's where most of the blame is going. When a team rushes for 300 yards, that's the D line. If you want to place the blame, look right here. It's on us (the defensive line). We've got to get that corrected."

Until the late heroics, Williams and the Panthers seemingly had overcame the non-Carolina elements and landed the homefield advantage, which was important since the Panthers were 8-0 at home.

"Give them credit," Delhomme said. "They battled back and made the plays they had to. They beat us. That's why this game is so much fun. One is excited. The other is totally devastated. That would be us."

New York finished 7-1 at home. The last time they were the No. 1 seed was the 2000 season and they went to the Super Bowl, losing to the Baltimore Ravens.

The Panthers scored touchdowns the first three times they had the ball with Williams tallying from 13, 5 and 1 yard in leading Carolina to a 21-10 lead.

John Carney got New York to within 21-13 with a 35-yard field goal late in the half, and New York closed to 21-20 when Manning found a wide-open Boss for a 4-yard touchdown pass with 59 seconds to go in third.

Carolina restored the eight-point lead when Williams, who gained 108 yards on 24 carries, broke a tackle by Pierce and scampered 30 yards for a touchdown.

The Giants' tying touchdown was set up by great coffin-corner punt by Jeff Feagles, a 12-yard pass from Manning to Boss and a pass-interference call in the end zone against Ken Lucas, one play later.


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