Jake Delhomme threw two touchdown passes in Carolina's biggest offensive show of the season and former Giants assistant John Fox and the Panthers posted a 37-24 victory on Sunday in Jim Fassel's final game after seven seasons in New York.
While Fox is looking forward to Saturday's game against Parcells and his Dallas Cowboys in Carolina, he walked off the field knowing he had sent a good friend home a loser.
"I spent the very first moment with him when he was hired and the very last," said Fox, who hugged Fassel after the game. "I feel proud to have been associated with him. He has a lot to be proud of, as I told him."
The victory was the third straight for the Panthers (11-5) and it set up a rematch with the Cowboys (10-6).
Dallas, which was beaten by New Orleans 13-7 on Sunday, defeated Carolina 24-20 earlier this season in Dallas.
"They beat us the last time and we have to give them credit," Delhomme said. "I'm glad we're playing at home. It's going to be a battle because they're going to come in ready to play. It's what you play for. Now everything gets speeded up. It's time to go."
The loss was the eighth straight for the Giants (4-12), who started the season with Super Bowl hopes, only to see it turn into a disaster after giving away two games early in the season and then being destroyed by injuries.
Fassel's eyes welled as he looked back on his tenure, which included three postseason appearances, highlighted by a Super Bowl trip in 2001.
"I feel maybe it is a better place than when I came in," Fassel said. " I know a lot of the older players have said that to me and that has stuck with me a lot."
Steve Smith scored on a 53-yard punt return, Ricky Manning had a 27-yard interception return for a TD and John Kasay kicked field goals of 42, 33 and 34 yards as the Panthers prepped for only their second trip to the postseason by opening a 20-0 lead.
This is the first Giants team to finish the season with eight straight losses since 1966, when the team was 1-12-1.
Fassel, who reached an agreement 10 days ago that allowed him to coach the final two games and then be fired, walked away from the Giants with a 58-53-1 mark, the third most coaching wins in franchise history.
The only thing that prevented the Panthers from totally embarrassing Fassel in his finale was Giants defensive end Osi Umenyiora. The rookie blocked two Todd Sauerbrun punts to set up short touchdown passes by Jesse Palmer, and he set up a fumble recovery in the end zone by Keith Washington with a sack and forced fumble.
"It's definitely a sad feeling," said Giants receiver Amani Toomer, who caught a 7-yard TD pass. "I wish we could have given him a win. A lot of things happened this year. It's kind of a relief to have it over. We wish it didn't happen the way it did."
The almost 3½-hour game was never in doubt, but it was a little wild.
Besides the 61 points, referee Bernie Kukar was knocked out of the game in the third quarter after being hit in the back by a Giants player trying to recover one of the blocked punts.
Fassel even pulled out all the stops to try to leave with a win. He got in umpire Bill Schuster's face for an early whistle that prevented New York from recovering a fumble deep in Carolina territory and he challenged two plays on one second-quarter drive.
Even though he got one call reversed, little went right for the likable coach, who also used halfback Brian Mitchell at quarterback for a few plays from the shotgun formation.
Smith's punt return, Manning's interception return Kasay's two Kasay field goals gave Carolina a 20-0 lead early in the second quarter.
The Giants never got closer than 10 points the rest of the way.
Giants players surrounded Fassel on the sidelines in the closing seconds and hugged him. Escorted by about a dozen camera crews Fassel walked to midfield and hugged Fox after the game.
About 200 fans stood in the end zone and Fassel waved to them walking off the field. They cheered.
|Jim Fassel gets a postgame embrace from Panthers coach John Fox, a former defensive coordinator on Fassel's N.Y. staff.(AP)|
|TD||Steve Smith, 53 Yd punt return (John Kasay kick is good), 9:46.|
|FG||John Kasay 42 Yd, 1:56. Drive: 9 plays, 63 yards in 4:41.|
|TD||Ricky Manning, 27 Yd interception return (John Kasay kick is good), 0:51.|
|FG||John Kasay 33 Yd, 13:19. Drive: 4 plays, 4 yards in 1:29.|
|FG||Matt Bryant 28 Yd, 8:57. Drive: 11 plays, 58 yards in 4:22.|
|TD||Amani Toomer, 7 Yd pass from Jesse Palmer (Matt Bryant kick is good), 7:50. Drive: 1 play, 7 yards in 0:05.|
|TD||Muhsin Muhammad, 1 Yd pass from Jake Delhomme (John Kasay kick is good), 3:44. Drive: 4 plays, 37 yards in 1:44.|
|FG||John Kasay 34 Yd, 0:00. Drive: 5 plays, 43 yards in 0:49.|
|TD||Visanthe Shiancoe, 1 Yd pass from Jesse Palmer (Matt Bryant kick is good), 10:45. Drive: 1 play, 1 yards in 0:06.|
|TD||Ricky Proehl, 5 Yd pass from Jake Delhomme (John Kasay kick is good), 4:22. Drive: 12 plays, 73 yards in 6:23.|
|TD||Keith Washington, 0 Yd fumble return (Matt Bryant kick is good), 14:47.|
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