EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. The NFC road to the Super Bowl will run through the Meadowlands because the New York Giants did what they had to do against frigid, swirling wind run the ball.
Derrick Ward ran for career-best 215 yards and set up Brandon Jacobs' winning two-yard touchdown run with 9:57 left in overtime and the Super Bowl champion Giants re-established themselves as the team to beat by earning the NFC's top seed for the post-season with a thrilling 34-28 comeback 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 losing streak by rushing for a season-high 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."
The fans who braved the numbing wind chill has plenty of fun watching this one. They tossed snowballs onto the field earlier and threw it like confetti when Jacobs won the game.
"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."
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) in the winner-take-all game for the NFC's top seed.
"The only message we sent tonight is that 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."
New York forced the overtime when Jacobs plowed into the end zone from a yard out, and Manning hit Domenik Hixon on a slant pattern for the tying two-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 four-yard touchdown pass as the Giants showed that the cold and wind was to their liking.
The loss spoiled a record-tying, 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, five and one 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 back to work and get ready for New Orleans."
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, sparking some more celebratory snow throwing by Giants fans.
The Giants won the coin toss in the 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 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 two. Jacobs scored on the next play.
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, five and one yard in leading Carolina to 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 pass from Delhomme to Muhsin Muhammad on a pass that went right through the hands of Giants cornerback Aaron Ross.
The Giants' defence 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 Boss for a four-yard touchdown pass with 59 seconds to go in third quarter.
It capped a 12-play, 84-yard marched that took more than eight minutes.
Carolina came right 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.
Jacobs scored on the next play.
Notes: Williams now has scored a Panthers' single-season record 20 touchdowns. ... Giants CB Aaron Ross left the game in the second half with a concussion. ... Panthers HB Jonathan Stewart sustained a head injury in the first half but returned. Kasay's miss was only his second in 26 attempts this season.