Panthers 37, Giants 24

For just a second Sunday, someone finally put a damper on what was a stunning regular season for the Carolina Panthers.

It came in a post-game locker room at Giants Stadium as coach John Fox was announcing the playoff week schedule. That's when Brentson Buckner, who sat out a 37-24 victory against the New York Giants, suddenly became nimble.

As players flowed into the locker room, Buckner came out to the stadium tunnel. He went to a truck that was being loaded with equipment and grabbed a Gatorade jug. Buckner then slipped back into the locker room and filled the jug with water and ice. As Fox told the Panthers they would host the Dallas Cowboys at Ericsson Stadium in a wild-card playoff game Saturday night, Buckner made his move from behind.

"You can't win your division, make it to the playoffs for the first time in years and not douse the coach," said Buckner, who is recovering from a knee injury. "That's something he needed. That's something he deserved."

It was the perfect ending to what was a great regular season for the Panthers. Their 11-5 record is the second-best in franchise history (the 1996 team was 12-4) and they won the NFC South title. Those were reasons to celebrate and Fox, somehow, had avoided the traditional bath during the division-clinching win in Arizona two weeks ago and after last week's win against Detroit.

But there was no escaping this time.

"Fox had no clue it was coming," fullback Brad Hoover said.

But, for the first time since 1996, Carolina's season won't end after 16 games and that made the celebration a short one for the Panthers and the soggy Fox.

"At first, it shocked him because he didn't know who it was or what it was," Hoover said. "He turned around, gave it a little laugh and then continued on giving us our practice schedule for the week."

That's because time is short. The Panthers, who are the third seed, drew the Saturday prime-time game against Dallas (10-6). The players will get today off, but their normal off day (Tuesday) will be a full day of practice. They'll need it because the Cowboys gave the Panthers problems when the teams met Nov. 23 at Texas Stadium. Dallas won that game 24-20, but the Panthers were elated after hearing the Cowboys would be their opponent.

"That's something we want," safety Mike Minter said. "That's something we're looking forward to. Hopefully, when we come out, we'll be fired up and ready to go. They'll be coming to our house this time, so, hopefully, the outcome will be a little different."

Sunday's outcome wasn't much different than expected. The Giants were playing their final game with coach Jim Fassel, who was told two weeks ago he would be fired at the end of the season. They also were giving quarterback Jesse Palmer his first career start and that was obvious.

Carolina came up with four interceptions and scored a touchdown on a Steve Smith punt return in the first quarter. The point total was the second highest (the Panthers scored 52 against the Bengals last season) since Fox was hired last year. But there was some sloppiness as the Panthers had two punts blocked, a pass intercepted and a fumble recovered for a touchdown by the Giants (4-12).

"There is no such thing as a perfect game," said receiver Muhsin Muhammad, who had five catches for 80 yards and a touchdown. "When you feel like you've played the perfect game, it's time to retire. It's not going to happen. But, as long as we play well enough to win, my philosophy is that it doesn't have to be pretty as long as it's a win."