The story lines leading up to yesterday's proceedings at Lincoln Financial Field were all about comebacks.
Former Eagles Brian Dawkins and Correll Buckhalter were coming back to Philadelphia as members of the Denver Broncos. Eagles running back Brian Westbrook was coming back from two concussions.
In keeping with the theme, the Eagles' final regular-season game at the Linc evolved into a comeback story, but it did not have anything to do with the aforementioned players.
Instead, it was about how a rookie wide receiver making his own little comeback squashed the Broncos' attempt to rally from a 17-point deficit with one sensational catch in the final minute, enabling the Eagles to pull out a 30-27 victory.
The Eagles improved to 11-4 and set up a winner-take-all game with the Dallas Cowboys (10-5) this Sunday for the NFC East title. Andy Reid's team still has a chance to earn a first-round bye if it wins at Dallas, and Minnesota loses tonight or Sunday.
With 59 seconds left against Denver, Jeremy Maclin ran a "go" route along the Eagles' sideline on a second-and-8 play from the Denver 40-yard line. With veteran cornerback Andre Goodman covering, Maclin came back for a throw from quarterback Donovan McNabb and made a diving grab at the 13-yard line.
At least he thought he made a diving grab. In fact, he was sure of it. Side judge Don Carlsen saw it differently, ruling the play an incompletion and setting the stage for a dramatic video replay.
"I was very confident," Maclin said when asked if he knew whether he had been able to keep both feet inbounds on the catch. "I was 100 percent sure. Immediately, I got up and told Coach Reid to challenge it, but I forgot it was under two minutes," when only officials can call for reviews.
After going under the black hood for the review, referee Mike Carey saw things Maclin's way and overturned the ruling on the field.
"It was a pretty amazing catch," Reid said. "That was a heck of a job by that kid right there."
Three clock-killing plays after the Maclin catch, David Akers trotted onto the field and booted the game-winning 28-yard field goal with just four seconds remaining.
Maclin, who had missed his first NFL game the previous week because of plantar fasciitis in his left foot, finished the game with a team-high six catches for 92 yards, but that was officially the biggest catch of his young career.
"I was just trying to make a play and be accountable for my team," Maclin said. "We were up, 27-10, and then all of a sudden things backfired and went downhill from there. We needed one play to just kind of spark us."
That 27-10 lead came with 7 minutes, 9 seconds left in the third quarter when a McNabb pass deflected off cornerback Renaldo Hill and into the hands of receiver Jason Avant for a 15-yard touchdown.
And then the game turned against the Eagles and, strangely enough, it happened on an interception by Eagles cornerback Asante Samuel.
Initially it appeared as if Samuel had thwarted a Denver scoring opportunity by stepping in front of tight end Tony Scheffler for his ninth pick of the season. By the time Samuel was finished running, he had reached midfield, but by the end of the play, yellow flags littered the field.
Samuel was called for delay of game for spiking the ball at the end of his return. The more costly infraction was an unnecessary-roughness call against rookie safety Macho Harris, who took out Scheffler immediately after the interception at the 5-yard line.
Instead of a first down at midfield, the Eagles were backed up to the 1-yard line. After they failed to pick up even a yard, a mediocre punt by Sav Rocca combined with another penalty allowed Denver to take over at the Eagles' 25-yard line.
Five plays later, Denver quarterback Kyle Orton connected for a 7-yard touchdown with Jabar Gaffney, the least publicized former Eagle now working for the Broncos. It was Gaffney's second touchdown of the game, cutting the Eagles' lead to 10 with 1:42 left in the third quarter.
Forty-nine seconds later, the lead was down to three after Orton hit rookie running back Knowshon Moreno for a 16-yard touchdown that came two plays after the Broncos recovered a Harris fumble during a kickoff return.
The Eagles' West Coast offense proceeded to go south at that point, managing just 1 net yard and no first downs on the next three series.
"To be honest, I thought our defense stepped up and made the plays," Maclin said.
He was right. Trent Cole, with a 6-yard sack and a 4-yard tackle for a loss, made sure the Broncos didn't score when their first possession of the fourth quarter started in Eagles territory.
The Broncos did get a game-tying 46-yard field goal from Matt Prater with 6:05 left. Reid was left with a difficult decision with just 3:07 remaining when the Eagles had a fourth and 1 from the Denver 49-yard line.
"That was a tough one right there," the coach said. "I guess I wasn't feeling it. At that point, I just felt like we needed to change the field position. Our defense was playing good, so I wanted to back them up and I thought between our fans with their noise and our defense, good things would happen."
Safety Quintin Mikell's response to the decision: Thank you.
"That's where we want to be," Mikell said. "I'm glad Coach Reid punted it. It showed confidence that we could get the job done. I'm really proud that we stepped up as a defense."
After the defense forced a Denver punt, the rookie receiver who had just returned from a foot injury had the final say in a week that was all about comebacks.
"That was a big play," Mikell said. "I haven't seen too many rookies come into this league and make catches like that in critical situations. It was great concentration."