So now we know the New York Giants aren't going to stumble into the postseason. Their 34-28 overtime win over the Carolina Panthers on Sunday night proved that the Giants were ready to end their two-game losing streak. The victory also did something else: It reminded us why this team was so dominant during the first 13 weeks of the season.
But as the Giants clearly understand, nobody wins a championship based on what happens at this point of the season. Those titles instead go to the teams that reinforce their strengths as they head into the playoffs while also overcoming their weaknesses.
Now that the Giants have nailed down the top seed in the NFC playoffs, we can take a closer look at what they should feel good about and what should concern them as the second season nears:
1. Ground game grind: The Giants had the second-best rushing offense in the league coming into Sunday night's showdown at Giants Stadium and they used that running attack to gash the Panthers. Brandon Jacobs' return to the lineup from injury problems gave the New York offense the physical edge it had lacked in its Week 15 loss to Dallas. But backfield mate Derrick Ward, with a career-high 215 yards, turned out to be the bigger hero.
He devastated the Panthers with repeated huge gains: Ward had three runs in overtime of 51, 14 and 17 yards to set up Jacobs' game-winning touchdown. At times he seemed to be doing most of his damage on the same basic play. Seriously, the Giants garnered 301 rushing yards as a team? If the Giants can keep running the ball with that kind of consistency, there won't be much suspense in the NFC portion of the postseason.
2. Mental toughness: The Giants probably won't admit this, but there had to be some doubt creeping into their heads over the past couple of weeks. A team that had been steadier than anybody else in the NFL suddenly couldn't do much right in consecutive losses to the Philadelphia Eagles and Cowboys. That same doubt had to be seeping into their minds on Sunday as well until they won. What made this win so impressive is that Carolina seemed to be running away with the game when it led 21-10 late in the first half. However, that deficit didn't fluster a Giants team that stuck with its game plan and rallied in the second half. The bottom line here: The Giants answered everything the Panthers threw at them. That's what champions do.
3. Home-field advantage: Here's all you have to know about the value of being the top seed in the NFC playoffs: Six of the past nine No. 1 seeds in that conference have reached the Super Bowl. Now here's all you need to know about the Giants at home: They've lost once in their own stadium all season. We already know plenty about how impressively the Giants played in winning three road playoff games on their way to last season's Super Bowl victory over New England. So it's fair to say they'll be up to the task of handling two home games in Giants Stadium in January.
1. Defensive questions: The Giants' defense played so well in the second half that it's easy to forget how pedestrian that unit looked in the first half against Carolina.
Panthers running back DeAngelo Williams scored three of his four touchdowns in the first two quarters.
The Panthers' offense scored touchdowns on each of its first three possessions. And even though the Giants held the Panthers to just seven points after halftime, this unit suddenly isn't as sturdy as it had been most of the season.
Since Williams became the latest running back to have his way with the Giants' defense -- Philadelphia's Brian Westbrook gained 131 yards against New York while Dallas' Tashard Choice had 143 total yards (including 91 rushing yards on nine carries) -- it's likely Minnesota's Adrian Peterson will run wild next week in a game that means nothing to New York. Granted, the Giants have been a top-10 defense all season. But they have to prove that the missed tackles and blown interceptions that marked their first half Sunday aren't something that will become commonplace in the playoffs.
2. The Plaxico factor: At some point, the Giants are going to miss having suspended wide receiver Plaxico Burress on the field. They can win without him, but this offense now has to labor more for points in the red zone. When the Giants can't pound it in with Jacobs, Ward or Ahmad Bradshaw, they simply don't have the luxury of using the 6-foot-5 Burress to exploit a favorable matchup with a shorter defensive back in that part of the field. Trust me, that type of advantage means plenty in the postseason. And for those with short memories, Burress' dominance in last year's NFC Championship Game against Green Bay, when he caught 11 passes for 151 yards, was a key reason why the Giants pulled off that upset at Lambeau Field.
3. Panthers-Giants, Part II: It already seems like we'll have a rematch of this contest in the NFC Championship Game. Despite all the gaudy numbers compiled by the Giants' running attack in this victory, the Panthers still could have won the game if John Kasay hadn't missed a 50-yard field goal at the end of regulation. That's something the Giants shouldn't forget in celebrating this victory. The Panthers basically play the same brand of football as the Giants -- a strong run game, play-action passing, tough defense and solid special teams -- and they won't be daunted by a return to Giants Stadium for a shot at the Super Bowl. If anything, they'll relish the chance to play the same underdog role that helped the Giants land the Lombardi Trophy last year.
If these two meet again, the Panthers win.
Senior writer Jeffri Chadiha covers the NFL for ESPN.com.