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Giant misstep for Panthers in 28-34 loss to New York

By Tom Canavan
Associated Press
EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. ó The NFC road to the Super Bowl will run through the Meadowlands because the New York Giants did what they had to do in a rigid, swirling wind ó run the ball.
Derrick Ward rushed for career-best 215 yards and set up Brandon Jacobs’ winning 2-yard touchdown run with 9:57 left in overtime to lead the Giants, who re-established themselves as the team to beat by earning the NFC’s top seed for the postseason with a thrilling 34-28 victory over the Carolina Panthers on Sunday night.
“It’s great for our fans to be able to play here at Giants Stadium,” quarterback Eli Manning said after the Giants (12-3) snapped a two-game skid by rushing for 301 yards. “You never know what the weather is going to be like here. 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. I think it will be fun playing the games at home.”
New York, which clinched a first-round bye earlier in the day, added the icing on this frosty night by beating Carolina (11-4) in the winner-take-all game for the NFC’s top seed.
The loss spoiled a four-touchdown performance by Panthers running back DeAngelo Williams, who gave Carolina a 28-20 lead with a 30-yard TD run two minutes into the final quarter. He also scored on runs of 13 and 5 yards before adding a 1-yarder.
The Panthers, who qualified for the playoffs when Dallas lost Saturday, can clinch the NFC South title and the conference’s 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.”
The fans who braved the numbing wind chill had plenty of fun watching this one. They tossed snow like confetti when Jacobs won the game.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.
“The only message we sent tonight is that the 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.”
The Panthers had a chance to win the game in regulation, but the swirling wind at Giants Stadium pushed John Kasey’s 50-yard field-goal attempt wide left.
The Giants won the coin toss in the overtime and couldn’t generate anything. 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. He followed that with a 17-yarder to the 2. Jacobs scored on the next play.
“The last two weeks we’ve been disgraceful running the ball,” said Ward, whose total was the fourth highest in Giants 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.”
Until the late heroics, Williams and the Panthers seemingly had overcome the non-Carolina elements and landed the homefield advantage, which was important since the Panthers went 8-0 at home.
New York finished 7-1 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.”
The Panthers scored touchdowns the first three times they had the ball, with Williams’ trio of touchdowns producing a 21-10 lead. The last touchdown came a play after a Tom Coughlin challenge left Steve Smith a half-yard shy on a play that originally was ruled a TD.
Carolina had eight plays of 10 yards or more on the drives of 77, 66 and 65 yards, with five going for more than 15 yards. The biggest play was a 60-yard connection between Delhomme and Muhsin Muhammad on a pass that went right through the hands of Giants cornerback Aaron Ross.
The Giants’ defense limited Carolina to seven second-half points.
John Carney got New York to with 21-13 with a 35-yard field goal late in the half, and New York closed to within 21-20 when Manning found a wide-open Kevin Boss for a 4-yard touchdown pass with 59 seconds to go in third quarter.
Carolina came right back and 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.
Notes: Williams has scored a franchise single-season record 20 touchdowns. … Carolina running back Jonathan Stewart sustained a head injury in the first half but returned. … Kasay’s miss was only his second in 26 attempts this season.
 

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