Another chance to prove they are among the NFL's elite eluded the Eagles last night.
With the defending Super Bowl champion New York Giants at Lincoln Financial Field for a crucial NFC East game, the Eagles found themselves on the short end of another shoot-out.
After taking the lead at the start of each half, the Eagles could not contain the Giants' powerful running game, yielding 219 yards on the ground in a 36-31 loss that severely damaged any hope the home team had of winning the NFC East title.
Powerful Brandon Jacobs did the bulk of the groundwork for New York, running 22 times for 126 yards and two touchdowns.
"Obviously, if you look at him, he's different," Eagles defensive tackle Darren Howard said. "You can't hit him in the shoulder pads and bring him down. If you don't have any help, it's tough to bring him down."
The loss left the Eagles at 5-4, three games behind the division-leading Giants, who improved to 8-1 and won for the 12th time in 13 games dating to last season's incredible playoff run. The Eagles also lost for the third time in as many games against a divisional opponent this season.
While New York ran at will against the Eagles, the home team's running game was exposed once again as a weakness.
Brian Westbrook carried 13 times for just 26 yards, and his last two carries pretty much ended the game. Down by five points and faced with a third-and-3 situation from their own 43 just after the two-minute warning, the Eagles twice handed the ball to Westbrook. The running back got just 2 of the 3 yards his team needed, and New York took control at the Eagles' 45-yard line.
"We thought we could attack what we thought were their weaknesses on defense there, and that's what we did," coach Andy Reid said when asked about the two final running plays. "Obviously, hindsight is 20-20. We need to do a little bit better job blocking and sustaining our blocks. A couple of times, they got us by overloading in the box."
Quarterback Donovan McNabb was disappointed he did not get a chance to convert the first down.
"I want the ball . . . but that's the coach's decision," McNabb said. "I like the calls, but you want the ball in your hands."
Westbrook was disappointed he could not get the job done.
"I have to do a better job of getting those tough 2 or 3 yards," Westbrook said. "It starts up front with the offensive line, but it ends with the running back, and I have to find a way to make those third downs and fourth downs into first downs."
Although a division title became highly unlikely for the Eagles, a postseason berth is certainly still within reach. But that's little consolation for a team that wants to believe it is good enough to win a Super Bowl.
On this night, the Eagles weren't good enough on offense or defense to beat the most recent Super Bowl winner.
McNabb also struggled in front of a national television audience, completing just 17 of 36 passes for 194 yards. He had three touchdowns and an interception.
Things couldn't have started any better for the Eagles. Three plays into the game, Eli Manning threw a pass that was batted in the air by defensive tackle Mike Patterson, who completed his huge play by intercepting the football. Manning was unsuccessful in his attempt to drag down Patterson, who returned the ball to the New York 9-yard line.
Two plays later, the Eagles tried their luck with the Wildcat formation that has worked wonders for the Miami Dolphins this season. With McNabb lined up wide left as a receiver, DeSean Jackson took the snap from center and sprinted for the right side on the end zone. The rookie receiver went airborne around the 2-yard line and successfully reached out for the pylon, giving the Eagles the game's first touchdown.
The rest of the quarter belonged to the Giants.
New York immediately answered the Eagles' early score by going 80 yards in 10 plays for the game-tying touchdown.
Jacobs and Derrick Ward combined for four carries and 36 yards, and Manning also found tight end Kevin Boss for a 22-yard completion. Faced with a third-and-9 situation from the Eagles' 17-yard line, Manning connected with Plaxico Burress for a touchdown after the Giants receiver got a few steps behind safety Brian Dawkins on a slant pattern.
Seconds later, after Ahmad Bradshaw forced a Quintin Demps fumble on the kickoff return, Manning and the Giants had a first down on the Eagles' 13-yard line. Chase Blackburn had recovered the fumble.
The Eagles' defense averted a larger disaster by forcing the Giants to settle for a 27-yard field goal by John Carney.
New York built a 17-7 lead as Manning led his team on a second 10-play, 80-yard drive that started in the first quarter and ended on the first play of the second quarter with an incredible 1-yard touchdown catch by Boss.
Down by 17-7 with the offense going in reverse, the Eagles appeared to be in serious trouble. Instead, they were about to become involved in a shoot-out reminiscent of the Week 2 loss in Dallas.
A second turnover got the Eagles back into the game. At the conclusion of a 10-yard run by the bruising Jacobs, Eagles linebacker Chris Gocong forced a fumble that was recovered by Patterson at the New York 44-yard line.
The combination of McNabb and Jason Avant turned that turnover into a touchdown. McNabb hit Avant for a 15-yard completion on a second-and-6 play, then found him over the middle four plays later for a 10-yard touchdown that pulled the Eagles within 17-14.
Each team added a field goal before halftime. McNabb gift-wrapped three points for the Giants with a bad interception that the Giants' Sam Madison returned 21 yards to the Eagles' 14-yard line.
The Eagles' quarterback made up for that mistake by leading his team on a nine-play, 61-yard drive that ended with a 29-yard field goal by David Akers as time expired in the first half.
The Eagles regained the lead on their first offensive possession of the third quarter. One play after a 20-yard run by Correll Buckhalter, McNabb used Hank Baskett's height advantage against cornerback Aaron Ross to throw a 7-yard touchdown in the left corner of the end zone.
That score put the Eagles up, 24-20, but the Giants, using their ball-control offense, scored on a 13-play, 69-yard drive and went back in front by three. Jacobs covered the final 3 yards and added another touchdown in the fourth period.
The Giants' drive was aided by a challenge from coach Tom Coughlin on an illegal-forward-pass penalty. If the call had stood, the Giants would have had to attempt a field goal. Instead, the call was overturned and New York went on to score a touchdown.
Another controversial call on a fumble by Jacobs as he went into the end zone for a touchdown was challenged by Reid but not overturned.
"There were a lot of close calls, and they all seemed to go against us," Eagles cornerback Sheldon Brown said. "But sometimes you have to make your own calls."
The Jacobs touchdown gave New York a 36-24 lead with 9 minutes, 30 seconds remaining.
The Eagles rallied to within five on a touchdown pass from McNabb to Kevin Curtis with 5:36 remaining, and the offense had one more chance to pull off the victory. But two runs by Westbrook resulted in 2 yards when the Eagles needed 3 and another divisional loss went into the books.