Panthers out-Fox Giants

Why would this one be any different? New York stumbled to the 2003 finish line with an eight-game losing streak, compliments of an embarrassing 37-24 loss to the playoff-bound Panthers, guided by former Giants defensive coordinator John Fox. <BR><BR>

However, Sunday was all about Jim Fassel, who leaves New York with the Giants in their longest tailspin since they dropped eight straight in 1980.

"They battled their ass off today," Fassel said. "They wanted to win this game bad."

Instead, the undermanned Giants just played bad.

"If you're going to send me to battle, send me with some ammunition," pleaded DT Keith Hamilton, who has yet to announce a decision on his future. "We need something to fight with."

All season long the surprising Panthers have been unable to score 30 points. Against Big Blue, it only took Carolina one half to reach the big 3-oh.

In the silver lining department, Big Blue finally got a big-time game from its second-round pick, DE Osi Umenyiora. The Troy State rookie set up all three of New York's touchdowns with two blocked punts and a forced fumble.

"He had a Hall-of-Fame year in one game," Fassel said.

The Giants and their fans gave Fassel a Hall-of-Fame sendoff. One fan was already at the stadium to greet Fassel when he arrived at 10 a.m. "He said some pretty nice things," Fassel said.

So did five of his current and former players, who spoke during a video tribute the Giants put together for Fassel that was shown to the coach and team the night before the season finale.

"What they did last night was incredible," Fassel said. "It was very touching."

During the video Tiki Barber, Michael Strahan, Kerry Collins, Keith Hamilton and Charles Way spoke of their appreciation for Fassel.

"It was just something we came up with," Strahan said. "It was phenomenal. After the video, the team gave him a standing ovation."

Unfortunately for all, the game still had to be played. And it got ugly early.

Steve Smith exploited one of New York's numerous season-long weaknesses – special teams – and returned Jeff Feagles' punt 53 yards for the game's opening score.

Big Blue's poor luck continued later in the opening quarter. An obvious fumble by Panthers RB Nick Goings, which was forced by Johnnie Harris and returned 30 yards for an apparent TD by Omar Stoutmire, was nullified because the officials blew the play dead. Unfortunately for Fassel and Co. the play was not challengeable.

The game was over by the end of the first quarter. Jesse Palmer's pass to Barber sailed high and was tipped by the leaping back. The ball then hit Panthers CB Reggie Howard before being picked off by Ricky Manning, Jr., who returned it 27 yards for a TD and a 17-0 Carolina lead.

Another turnover led to more Carolina points the next time around. Palmer was hit as he threw by Panthers LB Will Witherspoon, with DE Al Wallace intercepting the ball. John Kasay's second field goal extended the Panthers' lead to 20-0.

One of New York's final bright spots of 2004 came when Umenyiora blocked Todd Sauerbrun's punt, which was returned by David Tyree 13 yards to the Panthers 7-yard line. On the next play, Palmer found Amani Toomer wide open for the TD. Umenyiora would later block another punt, which led to a 1-yard Visanthe Shiancoe TD grab in the third period, and force a fumble that Keith Washington recovered for a touchdown early in the fourth quarter.

But no one really cared who won or lost. What really mattered is that Fassel's mostly-successful reign had officially come to a close.

"It's hard to see him get so emotional," Strahan said. "He's someone all of us players love – not just as a coach, but as a person."

"Life moves on," Fassel said. "I've had a wonderful run here. Seven years has been awesome – it's been great."

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