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Giants and Panthers meet for top seed in NFC

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[December 20, 2008]  EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. (AP) -- Fifteen games into the season, the New York Giants and Carolina Panthers are going to play for a nice prize: the NFC's No. 1 seed, home-field advantage for the playoffs and a first-round bye.

RestaurantSound important? It is, but hardly a guarantee for success.

It didn't do the Dallas Cowboys any good last year, when the Giants beat America's Team in a conference semifinal en route to a Super Bowl title.

Consider this, too: Through the last decade, the 1999 St. Louis Rams are the only top-seeded NFC team to walk away with the Lombardi Trophy.

So what's the value to the Panthers (11-3) and Giants (11-3) of earning the top seed in Sunday night's game?

It's getting to the Super Bowl. Six NFC top seeds have gone to the title game in the last decade, with three others making it to the conference championship contest. Dallas was the only team to lose in an NFC semifinal.

Make no mistake, being home has been good to the Panthers and Giants this season.

Carolina finished 8-0 at Bank of America Stadium. New York is 6-1 at Giants Stadium heading into its final regular-season home game.


"We want the bye, we want home-field advantage, we want the No. 1 overall seed, and one game gets all of that for us," Giants middle linebacker Antonio Pierce said. "Same goes for the Carolina Panthers, so I think both teams will go into the game focused and understanding what is at stake."

Both teams also are experienced in playing in the big game. New York went to the Super Bowl last February, of course, and stunned the unbeaten New England Patriots. Carolina's roster still has nine players who represented the Panthers in the title game in February 2004.

The Panthers and Giants enter Sunday night's game at Giants Stadium heading in different directions.

Carolina has won three straight and six of seven, posting impressive wins the past two weeks over Tampa Bay in a Monday night NFC South first-place showdown, and following that last weekend with a win over the AFC West-leading Denver Broncos.

"I think this team really likes the excitement and the pressure of the big games," Panthers left tackle Jordan Gross said. "The Monday night game was big and we were talking all week about how much we were looking forward to it, and this is even more of the same. I hope guys know it's big and there's a lot on the line and it's a playoff atmosphere, because if we're going to do what we want to do, we need to do well in these types of games."

The Super Bowl champion Giants were offensively challenged the last two weeks, losing 20-14 to Philadelphia and 20-8 to Dallas. Eli Manning and company scored one meaningless touchdown in the two contests.

"We have to put everything behind us and bounce back," Manning said. "This is a big game. We can't have our heads down and pouting and thinking about the last two weeks. This is the game that is important now. You can't get a bigger one than this. We have to be excited about our opportunity."

Just as important as the No.1 seed is the first-round bye. The loser of the game will still be in the running for the No. 2 seed.

"Coaches just grind away anyway, but I think that is helpful on players as far as you get an extra week off," Panthers coach John Fox said. "As far as what it means, it is slightly off because if you get in lane four or five it doesn't mean you are going to win the gold medal."

The showdown will match teams that mirror each other. Both want to use the running game to open the passing game. The Panthers have done that very well, gaining at least 400 yards in three of their past four games with Jake Delhomme running the show.

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Halfback DeAngelo Williams has averaged 116.4 yards and scored 12 touchdowns in the past seven games, while backup Jonathan Stewart leads NFL rookies with nine touchdowns rushing. Receiver Steve Smith has gone over 100 yards in each of his last four games.

"I anticipated we were going to be good, but I didn't anticipate that we were going to have the yards that we put up this year," Williams said.

New York, which still leads the league in rushing, was limited to a season-low 211 yards in its loss to Philadelphia, then held to 218 last weekend against Dallas in a game in which Manning was sacked eight times.

The key for New York this week is halfback Brandon Jacobs is expected back in the starting lineup after missing the last six quarters (left knee).

"We have a lot of appreciation for what Brandon gives us, which is a very physical style of running," offensive coordinator Kevin Gilbride said. "It has been the hallmark of what we do as an offense. We're a very physical, tough football team and certainly he is a big contributor to that."

The other problem for the Giants has been making plays downfield since Plaxico Burress was suspended for the rest of the season following a nightclub shooting.

Opposing teams have dropped a safety closer to the line of scrimmage and that has hurt the running game and put New York in way too many third-and-long situations.

"It's just a combination that we haven't been playing our best football the last two weeks, but that's kind of the way football goes sometimes," Manning said. "You go through some ups and downs and you just kind of have to find your groove again and that's what we're trying to find."


For the team that finds itself on Sunday night, the prize will be knowing the NFC road to the Super Bowl will go through either East Rutherford or Charlotte.

"I think it is very important because it dictates the playoff picture for you," said Giants placekicker John Carney, who at 44 is the NFL's oldest player. "Everybody wants to be playing at home. You have an advantage at home, and the bye week is a big deal, too. It is a very pivotal game for both teams."

[Associated Press; By TOM CANAVAN]

Copyright 2008 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.


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