EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. - They pitched a shutout for 59 minutes, 45 seconds and won by six points. Like so much of this Eagles season, the final score did not reflect how the game played out, how either team played or who got served.

Eagles 20, Giants 14.

It should have been closer to 26-7, should have been one of those fourth quarters in which Donovan McNabb mugged it up for the cameras, the stands at Giants Stadium emptying out as the clock ticked down.

But that's not this season, is it? This season is raw nerves and migraines. It's four wasted turnovers in a four-point loss to Chicago. It's three straight punts by your offense in the third quarter of that 23-17 loss to Washington. This season is an exhausted, 24-point fourth-quarter meltdown in Baltimore that included a 108-yard pass interception.

This season is Brian Dawkins and Asante Samuel colliding in pursuit of an errant Eli Manning throw yesterday. It's a blocked field goal flipping a 13-0 halftime lead into a 10-7 nail-biter. This season is all about your defense hanging on for dear life, all about playing entire games, months even, with their hearts in their throats, hoping against reason that the offense would do something, anything.

Yesterday, it did. For the second game in a row. The Eagles' offense ran the ball all game long, held a possession advantage of more than 9 minutes over the Giants, rolled up 331 yards of balanced offense. That was the big story, another ground-game victory dialed up by the coach who has shown little past patience for that formula.

Giants receiver Plaxico Burress, who shot himself out of the league, was not there. That was the other big story.

The Eagles' defense? For much of this season it has played better than the final statistics suggest, deserved better than to be standing out there, bent over, as the clock wound down on another loss. Baltimore's 24-point fourth quarter was triggered by that crazy interception and

fueled by a lopsided time-of-possession advantage that wore them down in the end.

Cincinnati held a possession advantage of more than 8 minutes. When the Giants beat the Eagles, 36-31, on Nov. 9, New York had the ball for 39:10.

Yesterday, the Eagles ran 41 times. Yesterday, the Eagles' defense was fresh at the end.

"When you have the offense grinding the ball like that, it gives us the chance on the sidelines to make our adjustments," Dawkins said. "And to rest."

How interesting.

Before the final 2 minutes tightened this final score and padded his stats, Eli Manning had completed seven of his first 21 passes for 66 yards. Before he went down in the third quarter with a leg injury, Brandon Jacobs had 23 yards on one carry, 29 yards on nine other carries.

The Giants gained 211 yards all day, their lowest total since December 2006. It would have been worse if not for that late 70-yard touchdown drive that pulled the Giants to 20-14 with 15 seconds remaining.

"They had our offense figured out today, that is for sure," Giants fullback Madison Hedgecock said. "In the third quarter I looked up and we had 36 rushing yards."

And yet, like so much of this season, that effort came ridiculously close to being wasted. The first half ended with Giants cornerback Kevin Dockery rambling 71 yards for a touchdown after the Giants blocked David Akers' 32-yard field-goal try. Halfway through the third quarter, after a long, gritty Eagles drive, the unthinkable happened again.

The Giants blocked a second field-goal try, this one from 34 yards out. Instead of leading 16-0, the Eagles clung to a 10-7 advantage.

And even the most iron-stomached Eagles fans got that familiar queasy feeling.

There have been big plays surrendered by the defense this season, some mammoth mixups, a few notable bad games. But for most of this season, defense has put the Eagles in position to win games they had no business being close to winning, has bought the quarterback lots of time to get his act together, and the head coach to do the same.

Yesterday, both had it going from the start. And when the third quarter started? There was no lull this time, like there was in San Francisco when another blocked field goal returned for a touchdown on the final play of the first half left them flat. The offense ran the ball upfield, against the wind, chewing up clock. And when the field-goal try went awry, the defense reclaimed momentum by stopping the Giants cold.

"One thing about the offense when they're driving like that, it makes you feel good," Dawkins said. "You're excited for them to do their job out there. You're like, 'Hey, man, we've got to get the ball back to them.' ''

"I think the whole team right now is playing with confidence," defensive coordinator Jim Johnson said. "We look like a team right now."

A balanced attack on offense. Fifty-nine minutes, 15 seconds of shutout defense against the Super Bowl champions, on their field.

The numbers should have been more convincing at the end. The Eagles should be better than the 7-5-1 they are today. True, they have closed the gap on the wild-card leaders. But as the misleading final score suggests, the room for error is still no bigger than a playbook.

So swallow often and hard this month, people.

Lest your hearts pop right out of your mouths. *

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