"We had everything at stake,'' defensive end Justin Tuck said. "That's a team [Carolina] that was only playing for pride, and I guess pride won today. We should have been playing for a little pride ourselves.''
It was a long goodbye for the Giants, who had a 26-yard touchdown pass from Eli Manning to Steve Smith on the opening drive nullified by a holding penalty on fullback Madison Hedgecock. Three plays later, receiver Mario Manningham lost a fumble, and it was all downhill from there as the Panthers' Jonathan Stewart rushed for a franchise-record 206 yards, the most ever allowed by the Giants on this turf.
Giants running back Brandon Jacobs, who gained a yard on six carries, called the TD that wasn't the turning point. "That first drive, they couldn't stop us,'' Jacobs said. "We got the penalty, which killed our momentum and took the fans out of it, and downhill went everything . . . The flag came out, and it took everything back and stuck a pin in us.''
But it was only the first drive. The game was scoreless. That hardly seemed the time for a little adversity to stick a fork in the Giants. But as it turned out, they were done right then, strangely devoid of emotion on what should have been a grand occasion.
Center Shaun O'Hara, who keeps a picture of late Giants owners Wellington Mara and Robert Tisch on the mirror by his corner locker in the stadium, offered an apology of sorts. "I think we all feel frustrated with the way we played, but even more so, we're really disappointed and sad for this organization, for the franchise, for the owners, for the fans,'' O'Hara said. "To finish the stadium like that, it's very upsetting.
"With respect to what this game meant, it was more than a game. This was the farewell to this stadium, and that being said, I can't imagine anything more disappointing.''
If there's one thing the Giants prided themselves on during the glory years in this building, it was defensive toughness and physical play. Both qualities were absent against the Panthers, as they have been much of this 8-7 season.
Stewart said the Panthers dominated physically. "It was just the heart and desire of this team in all aspects,'' Stewart said. "I felt like we wanted it more.''
Who on the Giants could disagree? Tuck called this game "the lowest I've been in a Giants uniform.''
He said the Giants had every intention of trying to give the fans one last great moment in the stadium. The notion that the nullified TD could drain the Giants' emotion was unacceptable.
"You remember when Mr. Mara died and we came in here and we beat Washington, I think, 36-0?'' Tuck asked. "This was the same kind of emotional ride. It should have been. So I don't think you can say this play or that play took emotion. It shouldn't have.
"We should have come right back. Even if our offense doesn't score there, as a defense, we've got to come out and get a three-and-out, a turnover, something to match their defense. We weren't able to do that.''
The unhappiest of endings will stick in the craw forever.