Hakeem Nicks of the Giants scores his 2nd touchdown of...

Hakeem Nicks of the Giants scores his 2nd touchdown of the game in the 2nd quarter while defended by by Captain Munnerlyn of the Panthers. (Sept. 12, 2010) Credit: David Pokress

The Giants couldn't do anything. Until they did.

The running game flopped for 8 yards in the first half but found its footing in the last two quarters. The defense didn't exert any pressure on Matt Moore but wound up with four sacks once the Panthers went into must-throw mode. And most importantly, the Giants were playing a methodical, lackluster, snooze-inducing game. Until . . .

"That second half was truly fun," Justin Tuck said. "That's how I remember the Big Blue defense playing and that's what we have to get back to on a consistent basis."

Tuck has a pretty good memory, because it had been a while since the Giants came off the field smiling. Yesterday's 31-18 win over Carolina produced some grins and even helped exorcise some memories from the last time the teams met. No, the Giants didn't talk much this week about that 41-9 loss last December. But it was on their minds, they admitted afterward.

"The way we finished last year, today was a chance for us to regain our pride," guard Chris Snee said.

They just had to wait for it to happen. The half ended with the Panthers driving 50 yards in 42 seconds to take a 16-14 lead on Moore's 19-yard pass to Steve Smith. Many of the 77,245 christening the new stadium made their displeasure heard before heading for the wider concourses and more dynamic dining options they would have traded for better football.

But the Giants scored on their first three possessions of the second half: a 32-yard field goal by Lawrence Tynes to take the lead for good, a third touchdown pass from Eli Manning to Hakeem Nicks, and a 4-yard run by Ahmad Bradshaw two snaps after he went 39 yards to the 1. That made it 31-16 with 11:36 left.

"It took a lot off our shoulders," Bradshaw said of the game-sealing TD. "It took a lot out of us, but we were excited to get it in."

The defense also girded, not allowing any offensive points in the second half and pressuring Moore once he no longer could afford to hand off to DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart.

"They're such a good running team, you have to get them out of that," said Barry Cofield, whose shared sack on Moore with Chris Canty opened the floodgates. "Until they're down at least two scores, they're going to keep pounding the ball. Until that point, they run so much, it's hard to generate a pass rush. They have to start pressing, and that's when our athleticism took over."

The key to that, Cofield and others said, was holding the Panthers to three field goals instead of touchdowns early on. There also were interceptions by Deon Grant, Terrell Thomas and Kenny Phillips - all in the end zone - that helped counter the three picks the Giants gave up.

"They went out, they weren't wagging their tails, they went right to work and they got the turnovers again," Tom Coughlin said of the defense's attitude after offensive miscues.

That kind of thing was missing last year. When things went badly late in 2009, they more often continued that way. "I think last year, we kind of got in a funk," Tuck said. "This year, we started off right."

Eventually, anyway. It took a little while, but by the end of the game, the Giants seemed to be heading in the right direction. Nine months after being humbled by the Panthers in the finale at their old stadium, beating them in the new place gave the Giants a little bit of swagger back.

"Oh, it's back," defensive end Mathias Kiwanuka said. "It's been back. The linebackers have it, the DBs have always had it and the offense definitely brings their own brand of swagger. As long as we show up and give a great performance, we'll have it every week."

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