Victor Cruz runs after a catch as Carolina Panthers linebackers...

Victor Cruz runs after a catch as Carolina Panthers linebackers Jon Beason and James Anderson try to chase him down during the second quarter of a game in Charlotte, N.C. (Sept. 20, 2012) Credit: AP

It was only five years ago that the Giants and Panthers met in one of the most exciting regular-season games in either franchise's history. In Week 16 of the 2008 season, two powerful running teams with eyes on a championship met to decide which would get home-field advantage throughout the playoffs.

Derrick Ward ran for 215 yards for the Giants and Brandon Jacobs scored the tying touchdown in the fourth quarter and the game-winner on a 2-yard run in overtime to give the Giants a 34-28 victory.

"That was a great game," Jacobs recalled. "That was an emotional game. A physical game. A great game."

It decided which team would be at the top of the standings and get the No. 1 seed.

On Sunday, when the teams meet again, they again will be fighting for an extreme place in line. This time, though, they won't be trying to get to the front. This time the goal is on the other end of the spectrum.

"Make sure you're not at the bottom," Jacobs said. "And it's going to be the same way."

The Giants and Panthers are two of eight winless teams in the NFL, and the only two facing each other this weekend. That means (barring a tie) one of them will join the ranks of the victorious and the other will drop to 0-3, a virtual season-ender in pro football.

Three teams have rebounded from 0-2 starts to win a Super Bowl since 1990, including the 2007 Giants. Only three teams have even made the playoffs after an 0-3 start, and it hasn't happened since the 1998 Bills.

"I'm expecting a huge battle," Antrel Rolle said. "No team wants to go 0-3."

But one of them will. So yes, both teams are desperate.

"This is definitely a must-win game," Hakeem Nicks said. "Being 0-2 right now is not fun."

In his 25 years as a head coach in college and the NFL, this is only the fifth time a Tom Coughlin team has gotten off to an 0-2 start. Only twice did the losing streak hit three, and one of those times was with the expansion Jaguars in 1995, who began their history with four straight losses. It is not familiar territory for him. Since he was hired by the Giants in 2004, Coughlin's record in September is 18-13, including this season.

Sometimes that first win can be the hardest to get.

"The next one is always the hardest," Mathias Kiwanuka said. "I think you learn a lot about your team when you lose. It's unfortunate that we put ourselves in this situation, but you do learn a lot about your character and your resolve and who's going to line up next to you."

The Giants haven't tasted victory in more than a month. Besides their two regular-season losses, they dropped their last three preseason games. Those certainly don't count against their record, but they do count against their psyche. The stakes may be different from what they were in 2008, but in some ways they are more significant. When that game ended five years ago, Chris Snee said he remembered thinking that those teams would see each other again in the playoffs. Neither made it that far.

This time, it's all but certain that the team that loses won't be part of any conversation about the playoffs.

"It's going to be a fight," Jason Pierre-Paul said. "Both of us are 0-2, right? Both of us are desperate for the win, and we'll see who's desperate enough on Sunday."

Webster out. CB Corey Webster (injured hip flexor) was downgraded to out Saturday and did not travel with the team. Aaron Ross is expected to start in his place.

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