There was an unmistakable bounce in his step as John Mara headed for a winning home locker room.
“It’s nice for the fans to win a game at home, finally,” Mara told The Post after 2-0 Giants 19, Panthers 16. “Just happy for them. They haven’t had a lot to cheer about in recent years. It’s nice to have a start like that.”
This isn’t the birth of a playoff team, or the sudden death of a broken laughingstock.
But MetLife Stadium got good and loud when the Giants needed it on Sunday and the Giants got good and loud enough when MetLife Stadium needed them to fill the place with pride and hope.
Giants fans should be under no illusions, of course.
“We’re a young team that’s still developing,” Brian Daboll said.
But just because this isn’t a Dream Team doesn’t mean they can’t dream.
Or, in deference to Graham Gano: Toe-and-0.
It was Gano’s fourth field goal of the afternoon, this one a 56-yarder with 3:34 left, that made the exit to the parking lots far different for the joyous Big Blue army than the all-too familiar trudge that always left the diehards more deflated than one of Tom Brady’s old footballs.
“We’re trying to build a great culture, and they’re part of it,” Xavier McKinney said.
It was Gano who broke down the team in this Deja Blue postgame locker room this way: “I appreciate y’all. Let’s keep grinding, all right? Let’s keep grinding. Giants on 3, 1,2,3.”
Then everybody: “Giants.”
It was not lost on McKinney that Gano had connected on a 51-yarder earlier in the fourth quarter following a 36-yarder and a 33-yarder in the first half.
“I always tell him, I’m like, ‘Man, you’re a damn Hall of Famer,’ ” McKinney told The Post. “I see him as a Hall of Famer. He’s always even-keeled. He never gets nervous.”
McKinney was confident when Daboll summoned Gano to win the game.
“Hell yeah!” McKinney said. “I don’t care where he kicks it from. I know he’s gonna make it.”
Daboll, who does not fear failure, who has explicit trust in his players, summed up the most impressive trait of his team in that postgame locker room when he said: “We don’t waver.”
Daniel Jones (22-for-34, 176 yards, 1 TD, 21 yards rushing) did not waver in the fourth quarter after hearing the boo birds for another slow start, after overthrowing a wide-open Sterling Shepard deep downfield, when he scrambled up the middle for 5 yards to get Gano closer for his 51-yarder. And, even more critically, when he scrambled up the middle for 11 yards on third-and-6 from the Giants’ 40 with 1:50 left on a perfect play call from offensive coordinator Mike Kafka to earn himself a pair of victory kneel downs.
“They matched Saquon [Barkley] in the flat, saw a lane to run so I stepped up and ran,” Jones said.
The quarterback is a fighter and he is growing on Daboll, with Kenny Golladay a virtual spectator.
“He could have done a lot of different things, and he made the right decision under pressure in a critical situation,” Daboll said.
Barkley (21-72 rushing, 3-16 receiving) never wavered when he ran for 19 yards and caught a pass to position Gano. The defense never wavered when defensive coordinator Wink Martindale blitzed Julian Love for a third-down sack when Leonard Williams was forced out in the third quarter and Baker Mayfield never saw the ball again.
“I’m just thankful for the opportunities, and thankful Coach trusted me to kick into the wind like that,” Gano said.
Jones had completed a 5-yarder to Shepard on third-and-23 following a holding penalty against Jon Feliciano and Daboll never wavered even though he would have preferred that Gano be a yard-and-a-half closer.
“Dabs looked at me and just pointed and said, ‘Go out,’ and then he was like, ‘Hey, can you make this?’ I looked over and said, ‘Yeah,’ and laughed,” Gano said.
Except he soon discovered it was no laughing matter.
“Then I got out there, it was like, ‘Man, this is a long one, the wind is blowing our way.’ You just try to hit it the same and make sure you hit it pure,” Gano said. “I had to get all of it.”
Gano, remember, had last year’s game against the Panthers circled on his calendar. He blamed the club’s medical staff for mishandling a leg injury in 2018 that nearly ended his career. So of course it was sweet for him. It always is in that situation. It sure was when he beat the Giants that season with a last-second 63-yarder.
“It’s what I dreamed of, it’s what I look forward to, those moments,” he said.
It was more gritty than pretty. Giants fans haven’t had a 2-0 moment since 2016.
“We never give up. We’re a hard-nose football team. We’re always gonna fight to the end. We’re always gonna play 60 minutes, and they never have to worry about that. We’ll never quit ever,” McKinney told The Post.
They’re getting a kick out of their New York Football Giants at last.