CHECK-DOWN, dump-off, underneath, onward. Into the valley of death rode the sub-.500.

For the Eagles, there was no stretching of the field yesterday against the New York Giants. There can be no stretching of the truth, either. They are a 5-8 football team after this 16-13 loss and their sell-by date is just about upon us. The foot is on the pedal and the trash-can lid is open.

One major reason is an offense that has been unable to sustain anything all season. The reason yesterday was a quarterback, Donovan McNabb, who could not/would not throw the ball down the field, who relied on running back Brian Westbrook pretty much to do it all.

But he could not. Westbrook even fumbled yesterday, which never happens. And Westbrook said: "We're definitely angry. We're not where we want to be at. We're disappointed. But we have to try to find a way to get out of the funk and that's where we're at right now. We're not winning football games. We're finding a way to lose them. If you want to be a winning team, you have to win the close ones - and we've lost a lot of close battles this year."

With McNabb returning after a two-game absence because of ankle and thumb injuries, there was some hope surrounding this team, even as the playoffs remained a distant hope. McNabb's inability to pull the trigger all year was out there, certainly, and the stylistic differences between him and backup A.J. Feeley also were plain.

Still, Feeley was reckless with the football and there was no choice to be made but to go back to McNabb. He was the better option yesterday, clearly. But against a Giants defense missing both of its starting safeties, against a defense that the Eagles shredded on the game's first drive, the offense again returned to plodding. Series after series, it seemed to be Westbrook or nothing.

He is a fabulous player having a fabulous season, with 1,110 rushing yards and 642 receiving yards. His numbers yesterday: 20 rushes for 116 yards, five catches for 38 yards and one touchdown, one punt return for 8 yards. But he cannot do it alone. McNabb's inability to find the Eagles' wideouts or get the ball downfield was plain.

"All eyes are focused on No. 36," said Giants linebacker Antonio Pierce, the guy who clearly interfered with Eagles receiver Jason Avant on the game's final fourth down (and who said afterward: "I really don't care. It didn't get called. It's irrelevant.").

"That's the focus of their offense," Pierce said. "If you look at the stat sheet, it'll be up there, 67 percent. We only let him into the end zone one time and the business is scoring points and stopping them from scoring points, and we did just enough."

Pierce was exaggerating. For the season, Westbrook has 38 percent of their net offense yards. But you get the point.

"I think they did a good job scripting the first 10 or 15 plays going into the game," Pierce said, and the Eagles did score on an 18-yard pass to Westbrook on the first drive. "To be honest, they outexecuted us and that's the gist of it. I think as the game went on we did a better job of containing. They wanted to feature Westbrook. I know he rushed for over 100 yards against us. He had a hell of a game and he's a hell of a back, but our key was that we can't let one guy beat us."

Which is where the Eagles' offense is right now. Consider: In the game's first 59 minutes, McNabb completed only nine balls for 70 yards to his wideouts. His two longest completions of the game to wideouts - 19 and 18 yards - came in the final, frantic seconds with the Giants desperate to keep everything in front of them.

The most illuminating play of the day might have come on the second-to-last drive, when the Eagles ran Westbook on a third-and-5 right before the 2-minute warning (and lost a yard). Yes, it was two-down territory to try to get a first down. But, still, if an Andy Reid offense has ever run on third-and-5 while trailing in the game's final stages, the situation does not immediately come to mind.

That is how anemic their passing game has become. That is how important Westbrook is.

"I think we did a good job of moving the ball up and down the field," Westbrook said. "We have a team that has to play four quarters of football. Today, we didn't. I think in the middle of the game, we just didn't get it done. When you want to win games, you can't have that."

After the game, Westbrook was beating himself up about the fumble, his first since Week 5 of last season against Dallas. It led to a Giants touchdown, and he said, "I really hurt this ballclub today with that fumble."

Which was true but harsh. This ballclub would not exist without Westbrook. He has carried them to the edge, week after week, but he has not been able to carry them the whole way, not by himself. And how could anyone expect that he could?

In the final minute, before kicker David Akers failed to save them with a 57-yard miracle that hit the upright, a scene of frustration played out. With the Eagles rushing to the line of scrimmage, way behind the play, Giants cornerback Sam Madison stayed on top of Westbrook, preventing him from getting back into position.

"I thought he had his shirt caught in my helmet or something, but that wasn't the case," Westbrook said.

Straining, desperate, with the seconds bleeding away, "[Madison] continued to press his elbow in my neck," Westbrook said. The officials did not see it or ignored it. When Westbrook finally broke free, and McNabb finally spiked the ball, at least a few precious seconds were gone. And a picture remained.

Straining, desperate . . .

Westbrook struggled, alone. *

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