EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. - On the Eagles' last scheduled visit to this place, to the site of so many strange doings over the last 3 1/2 decades, to Jimmy Hoffa's windswept sepulchre, it seemed as if bizarre was somehow preordained. Last night at Giants Stadium, it was as if history demanded it.
This is where Herman Edwards once committed a miracle, and where Randall Cunningham once punted a ball 91 yards. It is where Clyde Simmons returned an Eagles field goal that had been blocked for a touchdown, and where Brian Westbrook saved an Eagles season with an 84-yard punt return for the ages.
Now it is a place where the Eagles blew a 30-17 halftime lead to the Giants and still won, 45-38, in the highest-scoring game in the history of the rivalry. And after it was over, cornerback Asante Samuel raised his arms toward a mass of reporters entering the Eagles' locker room and made the following demand. Loudly:
"Put in the paper, 'A win is a win is a win.' Headline. 'A win is a win is a win.' ''
Which is the simple truth, except that nothing is ever simple around here. And on this night, in this stadium - with the replacement stadium now looming next door - it was a place where big plays were topped by bigger plays. A place where strange whistles were topped by stranger whistles. A place where the only certainty was gained when the clock finally ran out, with the Giants the losers, with the Eagles the victors, with a 9-4 record and first place in the NFC East now in their back pockets with three games remaining.
"It feels good but it can't be comfortable," defensive end Darren Howard said.
And, really, after a night like this one, comfort would appear to be fairly low on the probability list, even as the Eagles will surely be favored in their next two games, at home against San Francisco and Denver.
To reach their perch, first place in the division, the Eagles had to walk through a circus constructed in a minefield. They needed Sheldon Brown to return a fumble 60 yards for one touchdown and they needed DeSean Jackson to continue to build on his historic, outrageous resume, with a magnificent 72-yard punt return for one touchdown and a 60-yard reception for another.
How exciting is Jackson at this point? "Pretty stinking exciting," said Eagles coach Andy Reid, in what passes for ebullience.
They needed Jackson and Brown, all of that and more. It would take too much time to document it, no less understand it.
And the thing is, it almost slipped away. The Eagles had an extra point blocked on a touchdown at the end of the first half, giving them a 30-17 lead. On the ensuing kickoff, the Giants fumbled and the Eagles seemed to have been unfairly denied a chance to kick a field goal because the clock was allowed to run and expire (apparently a non-reviewable play). And then it began.
The Giants had moved the ball well all night - definition of well: 512 yards - and they drove down the field to score at the start of the third quarter, a 1-yard run by Brandon Jacobs that made it 30-24. On the Eagles' next possession, Donovan McNabb threw an interception on a play where he and tight end Brent Celek miscommunicated on when/whether the route should have been cut short.
One of the bizarre whistles - on an Eli Manning fumble that came after he was touched by an Eagles player but still managed a couple of stumbling steps before falling, a play on which the Giants challenged the ruling and lost - gave the Eagles a reprieve. But on their next possession, the Giants scored on a 61-yard pass to Domenik Hixon, a play on which Eagles linebacker Will Witherspoon missed a tackle and safety Sean Jones was transformed into a turnstile.
The extra point gave the Giants a 31-30 lead. The blocked Eagles extra point and the whole manner in which the Giants were cutting through the Eagles' defense had turned the evening on its head. Momentum, ever fickle, wore blue.
For one play.
Because that is how long it took, one play, for McNabb to find Jackson again. With outrageous protection from the offensive line, McNabb waited and waited and watched Jackson run completely clear. The 60-yard touchdown was accomplished with Jackson running effortlessly (and backward) into the end zone. There, he did a "Riverdance" kind of thing as celebration and was greeted by two launched beer bottles from the stands in reply.
"It's hard to guard speed," said Eagles right tackle Winston Justice, who added that the protection was as good as it was on the play because, on first down, the Giants had to honor the chance of a run.
That put the Eagles back ahead by 37-31, and they never trailed again. But the night still played out untidily. The Giants scored to make it 45-38 with 1 minute and 31 seconds left, and got the ball back with 28 seconds left. Then a final Manning fumble with 8 seconds remaining brought the messy denouement. The Giants' Shaun O'Hara and the Eagles' Trent Cole got into it after the play. Cole threw two big right hands and was ejected for his trouble.
The benches semi-emptied. Order was eventually restored. A final play was run. Everybody left, shaking their heads.
A win is a win is a win.
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