The euphoria permeating the Giants’ locker room after their monumental 34-28 over-time win over the Carolina Panthers in the numbing cold of the Meadowlands was expected, even for a team that has experienced so much success over the past year. In every corner of the spacious dressing area, players spoke of their will to win, belief in each other, unwavering faith in the coaching staff’s ability to prepare them, and an incalculable desire to prove that they are still the NFL’s top team.

“This is the greatest organization in football,” said the Giants’ outstanding rookie safety Kenny Phillips, his smile seemingly spanning from New Jersey to his home-town of Miami. “It’s times like these that I dreamed of when they drafted me [in the first round last April]. This was a big, big win. We came out and showed a heart of a champion.” Phillips echoed the collective sentiments of teammates. The victory earned the Giants the NFC’s No.-1 seed, home field advantage and a first-round bye that affords them two weeks of much-needed time off following their regular season finale versus the Minnesota Vikings on the road this Sunday. The Giants’ record of 12-3 is one game better than the 11-4 Panthers, who will play for the conference’s No.-2 seed this weekend. And they achieved their superior mark by dominating the game on the ground.

It was evident entering the match-up that the team capable of amassing a significant amount of real estate running the ball would likely emerge victorious. The Panthers were good, gaining 158 yards. The Giants were otherworldly, rushing for 301, most of them by the legs of Derrick Ward, who had 215 sensational yards–82 coming in the extra period–on only 15 carries. “I looked into every one of my offensive lineman’s eyes and they had my back,” said Ward.

His remarkable effort in overtime, including a 17-yard run that placed the ball on the Panthers’ two-yard line and set up Brandon Jacobs’ game-clinching touchdown, may soon be remembered as salvaging the Giants’ season. It may also be the fans’ lasting image of Ward, who becomes a free agent in February and will likely be too expensive for the Giants to resign, considering Jacobs will also be a free agent and a higher priority.

Those issues can wait for tomorrow. Today, the Giants’ mission is clear.

“We’re still hungry,” said defensive back/kick returner R.W. McQuarters. “We want more…No matter what the circumstances are, we keep fighting.”

The Giants’ circumstances, tenuous for most of the evening, now have them on a favorable path back to the Super Bowl.