When the dust had finally settled in Tampa and Atlanta on Sunday, the Giants' path to Super Bowl XL began to emerge. They earned the No. 4 seeding in the National Football Conference and will play the Carolina Panthers in the opening round of the playoffs, at Giants Stadium on Sunday.
The Giants clinched the NFC East title and secured a home game by beating the Raiders on Saturday in Oakland, 30-21. But their seeding and wild-card opponent weren't determined until the Tampa Bay Buccaneers topped the New Orleans Saints at home and Carolina beat the Atlanta Falcons on the road.
"All the regular season does is get you to the playoffs," quarterback Eli Manning said after Saturday's victory. "And now you see what you've really got."
If the Giants (11-5) beat the Panthers, they will play at either Seattle or Chicago in the divisional round the following weekend.
The Panthers, who also finished 11-5, were seeded fifth. They had the same record as the Buccaneers, but Tampa Bay won the NFC South with a better record within the division and was seeded third. Had the Buccaneers lost Sunday, the Giants would have secured the No. 3 seeding and opened against the Washington Redskins.
The Giants will make their first postseason appearance since losing a wild-card game to the 49ers in San Francisco during the 2002 playoffs. They haven't played at home during the postseason since beating the Minnesota Vikings in the NFC championship game in the 2000 playoffs. And when coach Tom Coughlin was given a drenching during a sideline celebration at the end of Saturday's game, he flashed a lasting smile for the first time since, well, who knows when.
"I'm very happy for our organization," Coughlin said. "We are the team of record in 2005, honoring the death of our two great owners, Mr. Mara and Mr. Tisch."
So, what can the Giants expect from the Panthers, who reached the Super Bowl two seasons ago? Entering Sunday's games, Carolina had the National Football League's fourth-ranked defense and its 22nd-ranked offense. The defense held its opponents to 14 points or less in eight of its final 10 games. And while the offense was uneven in the second half of the season, Steve Smith, a wide receiver, led the NFL in receiving yards with 1,563, and quarterback Jake Delhomme passed for 3,421 yards and 24 touchdowns.
The Giants and Panthers were 3-2 this season against common opponents (the Saints, Vikings, Arizona Cardinals and Dallas Cowboys). Excluding the preseason, they haven't faced each other since the final game of the 2003 season, when the Giants lost, 37-24, at home.
The Giants were 8-1 at Giants Stadium this season, including a game against the Saints that was moved from New Orleans; the Panthers were 6-2 on the road.
Perhaps a more pertinent question is whether the Giants will be close to full strength by Sunday. They had suffered a rash of late-season injuries, which continued against the Raiders. Running back Tiki Barber sprained an ankle but said after the game that it wasn't serious. Defensive end Michael Strahan was poked in the left eye, which became bruised on and just below the lid, but he also said he expected to be fine.
The Raiders' logo features a man with a patch over one eye and an even expression on his face. Strahan had neither as he left McAfee Coliseum, but his sense of humor was intact. "My modeling career will be put on hold for a few weeks," he said.