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Giants pave way for easier road back to Super Bowl

EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. -- The Panthers and Giants have so much in common that their clash for the NFC's No. 1 seed on Sunday night at Giants Stadium was reduced to which team could execute a little better, claw a little deeper -- last a little longer.

It was the Giants. They won it, 34-28 in overtime, when they drove 87 yards capped by a Brandon Jacobs 2-yard scoring run that made the Giants 12-3, the Panthers 11-4. It was a victory that gave the defending Super Bowl champions a 7-1 home record after finishing 3-5 at home a year ago.

Thus, the Giants have paved what should be an easier road back to the Super Bowl. They play next Sunday at Minnesota in a game where they can rest as many starters as preferred, will enjoy a playoff bye and then must win two home playoff games to return to the Super Bowl. Last year, the Giants won it all with four straight road victories.

"This is something we were shooting for, to be home for the entire playoffs, and if we get back to the Super Bowl, we can look back at this game as the catalyst, the springboard for the entire thing," Giants defensive end Justin Tuck said. "That might be the best game I've ever been involved in at Giants Stadium. And I don't know each and every game that's been played here, but I would have to guess it ranks up there with some of the best here of all time."

Maybe Tuck was struck by the game's cadence: Carolina led 21-13 at halftime, then the Giants closed that score to 21-20 entering the fourth quarter. The Giants won the fourth quarter 8-7 and then captured the overtime 6-0.

Or maybe he was mesmerized by the big-bang running backs who colored this game.

DeAngelo Williams was scintillating for the Panthers, rushing 24 times for 108 yards and scoring on touchdown runs of 13, 5, 1 and 30 yards. Jacobs was superior for the Giants, grabbing 24 handoffs for 87 yards with touchdown runs of 2, 1 and 2 yards.

It was Giants alternative Derrick Ward -- who has spelled Jacobs all season as a nifty, complementing twist -- who made the game's signature plays. Ward rushed for 51 and 14 yards in the Giants' winning drive.

Ward busted things loose, wide open, with a running scheme described as "O-play" by the Panthers because the right guard, Chris Snee (he is the letter 'O' in the Panthers scheme), kept pulling in front of Ward and blowing up and befuddling the Panthers defense late.

Ward finished with 15 carries for 215 rushing yards. That is a stunning 14.3 average yards gained per carry.

"They had something going with that '0-play' and we couldn't get that fixed and make the right adjustment," Panthers defensive end Julius Peppers said. "We should have gotten a stop on one of those long runs he had there to help win the game, but we didn't and that is disappointing. I mean, that's all on me and (the) defensive line, everybody up front. I felt like we played hard but allowed ourselves to be exploited on that play. It's embarrassing. That and giving up, what, 300 rushing yards? Embarrassing."

Actually, it was 301.

"We talked a lot about playing for 60-plus minutes this week and the plus part of it turned out to be where the game was won," Giants left tackle David Diehl said. "We had worked so hard against them for much of the game and they stood in there. But late in the fourth quarter and in overtime, I could tell their defense was starting to lean back a bit, get on their heels more, just wear down some. And that's the thing about our running game."

That "thing," as Jacobs explained, is this:

"A stick-to-it attitude, a keep-pounding-away attitude," Jacobs said. "They probably haven't faced that kind of stubbornness before. But there is a first time for everything."

And both of these teams left Giants Stadium believing there will be a "second time" between them, in the playoffs.

The Giants and Panthers have much in common.

They are physical teams who love to run it, but are not afraid to throw it short or deep. Strong in special teams and in nearly all of the little things. Power teams with effective quarterbacks.

Teams that know how to play a clean game. Carolina committed two penalties for 14 yards. The Giants two for 10 yards. Neither team committed a turnover.

The Giants reproduced an element of their offensive game that had been missing since the loss of receiver Plaxico Burress -- the big play. The Giants gained a long rush of 51 yards and long pass of 40 yards. Both, and other big gains, kept the Carolina defense honest and kept things open and flexible throughout the game for the Giants.

Panthers receiver Steve Smith began the game in blur-like fashion with a run of 23 yards and a reception of 35. He caught three balls for 47 yards in the first half.

He did not catch one pass in the second half.

He did not make one rushing play in the second half.

The Giants took him out with bracketed coverage and the Panthers found other answers, just not enough of them. Credit the Giants defense for forcing the Panthers into secondary options. Good ones. Just not as good as Smith.

And, as the Giants move forward, they must continue to find a way to disguise or help linebacker Antonio Pierce in pass coverage. The Panthers isolated Pierce frequently in pass coverage matchups and won their share of them. This is something the Eagles started and the Cowboys continued in saddling the Giants with the two-game losing streak they suffered entering this game. More teams will make this a key element in their game plan -- isolate and attack Pierce in pass coverage. Pierce is certain he can make the grade. He will have several more challenges and chances ahead of him in this dynamic to prove it.

The Giants and Panthers have much in common.

The difference in this game?

Try John Kasay's 50-yard field goal attempt that floated wide left with four seconds left in regulation that would have won it for the Panthers. Kasay before that miss had converted 24 of 25 field goal attempts this season. Try the Giants' first points of the game, a 32-yard John Carney field goal, where holder Jeff Feagles (also the Giants' punter) secured a ball snapped to him low, one that skid off the slick field, one he masterfully, artfully gathered and spun and held flawlessly for Carney. Try the R.W. McQuarters muff of the Panthers punt at the Giants' 13, the overtime punt that set up the Giants' winning drive. McQuarters muffed it, then jumped on it. Giants ball. Disaster averted.

Ward loose.

"You always dream about stuff like this when you are a little kid," Ward said. "It just felt so natural tonight. We never give up. We proved that over and over."

Panthers coach John Fox told his team great effort, great fight, now let's lock up the No. 2 seed by beating New Orleans next and hope for a return here. Another shot at the Giants, he hopes.

Nearly everyone leaving the stadium expects a playoff repeat, including coaches and players.

And all are looking for what the Giants already have, what they have not lost.

"Our guys," said Giants coach Tom Coughlin, "rise up and play."

Thus far in the NFC, no team has done that better.

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