Game of the Week: Giants outlast Panthers for No. 1 seed

In the spirit of the holiday season, the Carolina Panthers against the New York Giants came beautifully gift wrapped.

It matched the top two teams in the NFC, squads with identical 11-3 records. The No. 1 seed in the conference was at stake and the winner was assured of the home-field advantage throughout the NFC playoffs.

The Giants are the defending Super Bowl champions, but they came into last Sunday's game reeling. They had lost back-to-back games to Philadelphia and Dallas and their offense, minus Plaxico Burress, appeared to have broken down. The Panthers, on the other hand, were among the hottest teams in football, winners of three in a row, seven of their last eight.

Then there were the dueling nicknames. The Giants, the top rushing team in the league, have a backfield known as "Earth, Wind and Fire" for Brandon Jacobs, Derrick Ward and Ahmad Bradshaw. The Panthers have DeAngelo Williams and rookie Jonathan Stewart, better known as "Smash and Dash."

The game had all the elements of a primetime special and that's exactly what it turned out to be s the Giants overcame a 21-10 first-half deficit to win 34-28 in overtime.

The Giants rushed for 301 yards, their highest one-game total in almost half a century. Ward accounted for 215 yards on just 15 carries, a stunning 14.3 yard average. He did the heavy lifting in overtime, ripping off gains of 51, 14 and 17 yards to put the ball on the Carolina 2-yard line. Jacobs took it from there, muscling into the end zone to win the game.

On the other side, Williams set a Carolina record by rushing for four touchdowns in the loss. He finished with 108 yards on 24 carries, breaking tackles and reversing field, finding lanes through the Big Blue defense. Stewart wasn't really a factor, accounting for 29 yards on nine attempts.

Ward was named NFC Player of the Week. His 215 rushing yards were the fourth highest total in Giants history. Asked for an assessment of Ward's performance, coach Tom Coughlin summed it up in one word: "Wow."

"You always dream about stuff like this when you're a little kid," Ward said, "and for it to happen, it's so surreal right now."

The best part is, we may get to see a Game of the Week sequel back in the Meadowlands next month. But for now, Sunday's game -- "A classic," as Coughlin called it -- will surely do.

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