CHARLOTTE - A palpable air of anticipation filled Bank of America Stadium with the reigning Super Bowl champion New York Giants coming to town for Thursday Night Football.
Quickly, however, the ready-for-primetime Giants knocked the wind out of the Carolina Panthers, sending fans to the exits early and angry following a 36-7 loss.
"If I was a fan of the Carolina Panthers, I would be holding my head down in shame of the product that was out there today," quarterback
Moments after a Giants game captain confidently proclaimed, "Our ball," after winning the coin toss, their offense marched 80 yards with little resistance for a touchdown.
It kicked off a nearly flawless first half, and the Giants never looked back.
The Panthers, as painful as it might be, intend to look back.
"I hope it sits in the pit of our stomachs the whole week," Panthers head coach Ron Rivera said. "I don't like this feeling. I think it's a lousy feeling, and I hope everybody in that locker room feels the same way.
"This is not one of those games that you just throw away and say, ‘Well, we were just overwhelmed.' Yeah, we were overwhelmed, but still we can learn and grow from it and become a better football team from it."
The Giants led 20-0 at halftime, and frankly it could have been more lopsided. The Panthers briefly made it a two-score game midway through the third quarter, and given the weapons on Carolina's offense, diehard fans could briefly dream of an improbable rally.
The climb, however, was way too steep, and the Panthers soon backtracked again.
"When you get smacked in the face, you've got to turn around and be ready to throw a punch back," Rivera said. "At times, we don't seem to know how."
In the beginning, the Panthers' crowd came loaded for bear, but Carolina's cupboard was bare in the first half.
Giants quarterback Eli Manning had all night to throw, and he took advantage by completing 19-of-25 passes for 208 yards and a touchdown.
The Giants were without top receiver Hakeem Nicks, who had more receiving yards Sunday (199) than his replacement, Ramses Barden, had in his three-plus NFL seasons (198). Barden, however, filled in seamlessly with eight first-half catches for 139 yards.
The Giants also were without leading rusher Ahmad Bradshaw, but Andre Brown, a third-year pro who had minus-1 yard rushing in his career before gaining 71 yards last week, followed it up with 96 first-half yards and a touchdown.
The Panthers defense couldn't get any pressure to rattle Manning, and while they could get a hand or two on Brown, they couldn't consistently bring him to the ground.
The Carolina offense actually crossed midfield on three of its four first-half possessions but couldn't penetrate the 40-yard line on any of them and was forced back to its half of the field on one.
Panthers fans were ready for prime time, ready to show the NFL nation that their beloved team had arrived. Rivera, however, has cautioned that the rebuilding process is far from the finish line, and fans got an unfortunate reminder of that reality.
On the other hand, despite the depressing details of the loss, hard lessons are a part of the growing process, and the game only counts as one loss in the standings no matter the margin.
What matters now is how the Panthers respond, specifically how they respond in 10 days when they visit the unbeaten Atlanta Falcons. Win that one, and they're 2-1 in the NFC South and right in the thick of the division race.