EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. ---- Normally, a 30-point first half means an easy night.
Normally, if you score touchdowns early in the game on a return of a fumble and a return of a punt, your opponent is left dazed, confused, pretty much dead.
This was not a normal evening, the Eagles' final visit to the Meadowlands, which is being replaced by the shiny stadium that looms adjacent to it, peering over the rim on the home team's side. But when the final seconds bled away, despite shoddy tackling and all manner of strange occurrences, they were your first-place Eagles, winners over the host Giants, 45-38, the Birds now the NFC East leaders at 9-4, after the Cowboys' loss earlier in the day to San Diego.
The path to the playoffs looks ridiculously clear this morning, for a team that has struggled so mightily, a team that had moments of outright incompetence even last night, as it was winning for the fourth week in a row.
"I know they had a couple yards," Eagles coach Andy Reid said afterward. "But the Eagles had a couple yards, too."
Actually, the Giants had 512 yards, 379 net passing yards. The Eagles had 374, 297 passing, plus 223 yards worth of special teams gains. Mainly, the Eagles had DeSean Jackson, back from a one-week concussion absence. Jackson now has eight touchdowns of 50 or more yards this season, tying an NFL record. Jackson caught 6 passes for 178 yards last night and the (final) go-ahead touchdown; he also returned a punt 72 yards for a touchdown.
"He's pretty stinkin' exciting," Reid said, when asked where Jackson ranked among exciting players he has coached. "It's like we're playing in the back yard to him … When the game's on the line, he wants the ball."
One more victory, against San Francisco, Denver or Dallas, the Eagles are a 10-win team. Two wins, including Dallas, and they have to win the division.
Yesterday, it rained sideways and upside down all day, giant puddles pooling on the artificial surface. Then, just before gametime, clear and kind of mild, the squishy field the only reminder of the deluge.
The Eagles drove for a touchdown off the opening kickoff, and then they made it 14-0 on the Giants' first series, Sheldon Brown picking up Brandon Jacobs' fumble and jogging 60 yards with it. Brown's fifth touchdown tied him with Seth Joyner and Eric Allen as the franchise defensive TD leader. Again, this should have presaged a rout, but it didn't.
The Giants scored the next 10 points. The Birds weren't getting any pressure on Eli Manning, weren't stopping the run, and weren't tackling in the open field, which, when taken together, makes the playing of defense very difficult. If the Giants hadn't dropped some passes, it could have been worse.
Also, somewhere in there, rookie wideout Jeremy Maclin left the field after tearing plantar fascia, which Reid said would be a one or two-week injury. If Maclin is sidelined longer, that could end up being what we remember most about this odd night.
The Birds drove for another field goal, and then they got that gorgeous 72-yard punt return TD from Jackson. Jackson showed what makes him special, taking a ball Jeff Feagles had angled to the Birds' sideline, stepping like he meant to go toward the middle, then breaking back to the sideline, where his blocking was set up beautifully. Feagles, who is 43, had the best shot, and it wasn't much of a shot.
"I've made it a rule not to get tackled by the kicker," Jackson said.
Djax high-stepped all the way home. In less than two seasons, he has three punt return touchdowns, which is a franchise record.
Again, at 24-10, early in the second quarter, the Birds should have been on their way. But the Giants had an amazingly easy time scoring, 8 plays, 67 yards, Ahmad Bradshaw busting 3 yards for the TD that made it 24-17.
The Eagles came right back, 8 plays, 70 yards, Michael Vick capping his best half as an Eagle with a 1-yard TD run to the left behind a Todd Herremans block, 10 seconds left in the half. David Akers' extra point try was blocked.
On the ensuing kickoff, Domenik Hixon fumbled, recovered by Moise Fokou. Two seconds showed on the TV replay screen when the ball was covered, but ref John Parry apparently saw only zeroes when he looked up at the clock after blowing the whistle, which meant the half was over. Even though it shouldn't have been. That's life in the NFL in 2009.
The Giants came out firing in the second half, and led 31-30 after Jacobs scored from the 1 on fourth down, then both Will Witherspoon and Sean Jones whiffed on Hixon, who took a short catch 61 yards for the go-ahead TD.
Afterward, Witherspoon referenced "a series of missed tackles that led to big plays by them."
But Witherspoon said he felt the result showed "we're willing to overcome almost any obstacle."
First play after the Giants' go-ahead TD? Donovan McNabb's 60-yard touchdown pass to Jackson. Eagles up again, 37-31, and we weren't even in the fourth quarter yet.
"Man, it was one of those things - I was kind of desperate, the team was desperate," Jackson said. "I just put it on my shoulders to go to Donovan and go to coach Reid and go to Marty (Mornhinweg, the offensive coordinator) and say, 'give me the ball.' The Giants, they did a good job of fighting and staying close, making it a good game, but I felt, with us being up by 14 points at one time (technically, two times), if we had gotten one more touchdown to be up by 21, they would have been (out of the game) ... They definitely tested us, and it was a tight game, but we were able to come through."
McNabb said the key to the play was sub tight end Alex Smith getting corner-turned safety Aaron Ross to bite on an underneath route, leaving wide open spaces for Jackson. McNabb said he tried to tell his shell-shocked defensive teammates, "We've got your back."
Mornhinweg said the challenge of being Jackson's offensive coordinator is that "you'd better have enough" in the gameplan for the second-year game-changer.
"You've got a special player there," Reggie Brown said. "You could feel the wind go out of th crowd" after the quick strike to take back the lead.
After that score, both defenses seemed to find a little traction. Or maybe the offenses just got tired. Perhaps someone told them they were contesting the highest-scoring Eagles-Giants game in more than 17 years, a 47-34 Eagles shootout win on Nov. 22, 1992, a mark they eventually surpassed.
The Eagles' clinching drive started after Jackson fair-caught a punt at the 9. They took 12 plays and a clutch 7 minutes and 24 seconds off the clock before getting a TD and a two-point conversion that gave them a 45-31 lead.
Weaver gained 16 yards on 4 carries during the drive, most notably the final yard, after Vick ran it from the 6 to the 1 on first and goal. Weaver also caught a pass for 8 yards. The drive featured a clutch 19-yard catch by none other than Reggie Brown, subbing for Maclin. Brown seemed to run about a minute off the clock as he traveled across the field, ending up at the Giants' 6. Jason Avant's twisting dive for the cone on the conversion play also was amazing.
Weaver said McNabb changed the call on the TD play, shifting it from the right to the left. The Eagles scored three touchdowns on five red zone chances, moving that topic to the back burner for a week, anyway.
This score really, really really should have done it, but unbelievably it almost didn't. Manning hit Mario Manningham in the end zone from 28 yards with 2:21 left, surely enough time for the Giants to onside kick and hope. But Reid actually won a challenge - Manningham's second foot was on the out-of-bounds line, and the ball came back to the 28.
New York scored anyway, with 1:31 left, on a 4-yard TD pass from Manning to an uncovered Kevin Boss. Lawrence Tynes' onside kick went out of bounds clean, nobody close to touching it.
Joselio Hanson, in his return from a 4-week suspension, recovered Manning's fumble on a Darren Howard sack with 8 seconds left. Trent Cole was ejected after throwing a punch during an ensuing melee.
The 7-6 Giants didn't seem too pleased to lose for the fourth successive time to the Eagles, counting last January's playoffs. They gave up 85 points in their two losses to the Birds this season.