EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. - Remember how that first Eagles-Giants game wasn't as close as the final score?
This one wasn't, either.
Except this time, the team that dominated the line of scrimmage and the clock, the team that looked physically superior up front on both sides of the ball, was not the defending Super Bowl champion New York Giants.
It was your Philadelphia Eagles, who won by 20-14 on the scoreboard, but by 331-211 in net yards, 24-14 in first downs, and 11-3 in rushing first downs. At one point, the Birds were on a 12-for-13 third-down conversion roll.
"We wanted to show that we're a physical team; we take pride in how physical we are. We kind of got pushed around that first game, so that was a point of emphasis coming into this game," said Eagles middle linebacker Stewart Bradley, who was credited with a team-high seven solo tackles. The Birds' defense very nearly pitched a shutout, against the NFL's highest-scoring offense. "It's easy to play good defense when the offense is rolling like that."
This was pretty much the opposite of the game these teams played Nov. 9 at Lincoln Financial Field, a 36-31 Giants victory in which the visitors rushed for 219 yards and controlled the ball for 39 minutes and 10 seconds. The Eagles' time-of-possession edge yesterday wasn't quite that remarkable (34:54 vs. 25:06) - it's hard to roll up horribly lopsided numbers if the opposition sticks with the run at all, and the Giants, of course, do - but the Birds had it for 20:36 in the second half, to the Giants' 9:24, and that right there was the game. New York's time-of-possession total was its lowest of the season.
"I thought both lines, offensive and defensive, just played their hearts out," said Eagles coach Andy Reid.
You thought the Giants would have a much easier time running it? Brandon Jacobs reinjured a knee in the third quarter and finished with 52 yards on 10 carries, 23 of them on one run. The Eagles kept eight men in the box, with no Plaxico Burress to worry about, targeted tight end Kevin Boss for manhandling, and outrushed the Giants, 144 yards to 88.
"It feels awesome," Eagles strongside linebacker Chris Gocong said. "We knew that we could do this; we've had the talent the whole time. It's just a matter of bringing it together."
As fascinating as the numbers are, at some point you have to pull yourself away from them and give some attention to the fact that the Eagles kept their playoff hopes alive, on the day most observers thought they'd be writing an obituary. Not only are they 7-5-1 with three games left, New Orleans did them a favor by beating Atlanta yesterday, dropping the Falcons to 8-5. A Steelers victory over Dallas gave the Cowboys five losses, as well. Bottom line: The Eagles remain a long way from making the postseason, but it was a lot longer before yesterday.
A big chunk of the second-half time disparity was earned on the clinching drive, when the swamplands sea gulls squawked and the hot-dog wrappers swirled and darted in a biting wind for an endless 7 minutes and 17 seconds while the Birds sauntered 46 yards on 14 plays, only one of which was a pass. By the time a 34-yard David Akers field goal made it 20-7, just 2:09 remained and everyone on both sidelines knew which team was going to win the game.
"Time was a big factor; it almost always is, that clock, in a wicked, windy, cold game like that," Eagles offensive coordinator Marty Mornhinweg said. "We had to do that to win the game, I thought. Once we got to the stadium, it looked like it was going to be a cold, very windy day, and the reports were that it was only going to get worse. And it did. It was wicked out there in the fourth quarter."
On the Giants' sideline, defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo looked perplexed, like, "What is this deal where Donovan McNabb turns around and hands the ball to someone, who then moves forward with it?" Spagnuolo was an Eagles assistant from 1999 to 2006, and he probably never saw a Reid game plan anything like this one - 38 called runs vs. 34 called passes.
Truth be told, it wasn't so much the game plan as the way the afternoon unfolded, said Mornhinweg and Brian Westbrook, who gained 131 yards on a career-high 33 carries and scored both Eagles touchdowns. During the long, clinching drive, they faced third-and-5 from the Giants' 22, ran Westbrook to the right, and picked up 6 yards and the first down. Backup center Nick Cole, subbing for right guard Max Jean-Gilles (ankle) the rest of the season, looked like an upgrade, if anything.
Bradley said he watched from the bench with mounting excitement, knowing the minutes the offense were eating were so important. On the field, left tackle Tra Thomas said the Giants were saying nothing to the Eagles, but were "talking to themselves."
In the Eagles' huddle, "I think everybody was extremely high off what we were doing, and we just wanted to keep doing. Just keep pushin', just keep getting a body on a body," Thomas said.
"Based on what we did the last time we played them, I'm pretty sure they weren't expecting us to run the ball this much," said Westbrook, who confirmed what is obvious on the field - his knee and ankle injuries have improved these past few weeks, as he has scored six touchdowns, and balance has returned to the Eagles' offense. "I think it just developed throughout the game. We had some success. The wind was blowing a little bit."
Reid, not given to vivid imagery, allowed that Westbrook is "running like a wild man right now."
It was not good to be in Eli Manning's situation, receivers dropping balls with numbed fingers, down 10-0 before the gift touchdown the Birds surrendered on the 71-yard Kevin Dockery return of a blocked, 32-yard field-goal attempt on the final play of the first half. Manning entered the final 2 minutes of the game 7-for-21 for 66 yards, before driving his team for a meaningless touchdown. Early drops seemed to affect his passing, something Eagles fans might have seen in the past with McNabb.
Incredibly, this was the second time (Oct. 12 at San Francisco was the first) the Birds have allowed a touchdown on a blocked field goal on the final play of the first half and then won the game.
After that play, Giants coach Tom Coughlin was pumping his fist and screaming. At the time, it seemed Coughlin was exulting in getting back into the game. But the way things developed, looking back, you had to wonder if he was trying to pump some life into his somehow dull-edged, 11-1 team. The Giants came in having won seven in a row, with a chance to clinch the NFC East, which they did later when the Cowboys lost. But the Giants also spent the previous week talking about the misadventures of Burress, placed on the non-football-related injury list for the rest of the season after accidentally shooting himself.
"We have no excuses. We got beat on the field," Coughlin said afterward. "They had time of possession, they had rushing yards, they had every stat."
The Eagles, who won their first divisional game this season (1-3), managed to overcome Akers missing his next field-goal attempt, a 34-yarder that might have been tipped by Terrell Thomas, with Akers kicking into the wind. Coughlin took the wind in the third quarter, which might have helped him on that play, but definitely didn't help when the Giants were trying to come back in the fourth.
In the previous meeting, Westbrook was hobbled and was held to 26 yards on 13 carries, along with three catches for 33 yards. He broke two huge plays yesterday, a 30-yard, second-quarter TD run against a nine-man front, which Westbrook broke through untouched, and a 40-yard, fourth-quarter touchdown catch-and-run on which McNabb said Westbrook was his fourth read. Westbrook took off down the middle, reeling in the ball and running away from Burress' nightclub buddy, linebacker Antonio Pierce.
"I jumped inside. He went outside," Pierce said.
"Once you get Westbrook in the open field, it's over. He takes it to the house,'' said Nick Cole, who started for only the third time in his career, all of them against the Giants.
Overall, it's amazing how just as their postseason hopes slipped to the margins, the Eagles reeled off their two best all-around efforts of the season, Thanksgiving night against Arizona and yesterday.
"I really like what I'm feeling in our locker room right now," said free safety Brian Dawkins. "The confidence guys are playing with, the attention to detail in practice and when we touch the field, I think you are seeing the results, these last couple of weeks, of what I feel."
Three more of those weeks, and who knows? *