"ITHOUGHT IT was pretty stinking close," Andy Reid said. Which means nothing, of course, not in horseshoes, hand grenades, or replay challenges in the National Football League. Pretty stinking close. This is about as near to public blasphemy as the Eagles' head coach gets, but it doesn't matter.

"It was too close," Reid said. He was talking about a touchdown by Brandon Jacobs with 9 minutes, 30 seconds remaining in the fourth quarter of the Eagles' 36-31 loss to the New York Giants, a touchdown on which the Eagles felt that Jacobs had fumbled before he crossed the goal line. Reid challenged the play. Reid lost.

"I can't sit here and question anything," he said. "I thought it was right there, even after I had looked at the replay."

But it wasn't. Challenges. Who would have believed this game could have become so ensnared in replay challenges? On a night of high drama against the Giants, a night when the Eagles' defense got pushed around the field as if it were on wheels, a night when the Eagles deserved to have been blown out, whoever could have predicted that the outcome would be profoundly influenced by two replay challenges that went in favor of the Giants?

Yes, the Eagles still had a chance at the end. Yes, the Eagles could not convert on third-and-3 and fourth-and-1 as they gave up the ball for the final time - two more short-yardage failures in a season full of them. The replays did not lose the game. What the replays did, instead, was focus the frustration of a team that likely waved goodbye to the NFC East last night.

In the annals of this rivalry, this will be remembered as "The Night of the Red Flag." In years to come, people will look back and see this as the night when the digital-replay machine did in the Eagles in the end. The final score was Giants 36, Eagles 31. A bunch of stuff happened. But the challenges stand out.

That isn't to say the calls were wrong. They were excruciatingly close, and referee Terry McAulay likely got them right. But that does not make it any more palatable. On the night the Eagles lost their last reasonable chance of winning the division, some of the final, essential bits of the drama took place with McAulay's head beneath the protective hood of the way-back machine.

The first key challenge came in the middle of the third quarter, with the Eagles leading by 24-20. On a third-and-10 play from the Eagles' 20-yard line, Giants quarterback Eli Manning completed a pass over the middle to tight end Kevin Boss for a 17-yard gain. But a yellow flag flew quickly. The call was that Manning was over the line of scrimmage when he threw the ball. The Giants were going to be left with a long field-goal try.

Pretty quickly, Giants coach Tom Coughlin challenged the call. Here is the deal with the rule: both the quarterback and the ball have to be completely over the line of scrimmage for the pass to be considered illegal. Watching the replay, what you saw, maybe, was Manning's heel touching the red line that is superimposed on the screen by the good television people, marking the line of scrimmage. So, by the fact of that heel and that red line, overturning the call was correct. A few years ago, before those red lines, there was no way the referee could have overturned the play. As it is, you wonder if the red line is seen by the NFL as precise enough to be used on such calls. Apparently, it is - because there is no other way McAulay could have overturned the call.

But he did, and the Giants scored and went ahead by 27-24.

The next challenges also went the Giants' way. Yes, there were two of them. Reid never challenges - going into this season, he challenged fewer times than anyone in the NFL - but he ended up challenging on two consecutive plays in the fourth quarter. Both involved plays in which the Eagles claimed that Jacobs fumbled.

The first challenge seemed kind of frivolous because, yes, the ball came loose but, no, there really was never any reason to believe that the officials were wrong. McAulay looked at it and ruled quickly that Jacobs' elbow hit the ground before the ball came loose. "The first one was mine, that was mine," Reid said, taking the blame.

On the very next play, the officials ruled that Jacobs had scored on a run over the middle of the line. But the ball came loose again. Reid must have thrown the red flag 20 yards in the direction of the officials - in hope, in exasperation, who knew.

Replays showed the ball coming loose as Jacobs was near the goal line. If he was over the line by a millimeter before the ball came out, it should rightly have counted as a score. The problem was, the NBC cameras did not have an absolutely definitive angle on the goal line. The best look at it was from the camera suspended over the field on wires - but that camera is behind the play, not on the line.

If they put a gun to your head, you might very well say it was a fumble. But without the goal-line angle, it would have taken a leap of faith and judgment for McAulay to overturn it. The rulebook allows for no such leaps. And the standings now allow for no reasonable hope that the Eagles can win the NFC East. *

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