EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. - The legs of Michael Vick and DeSean Jackson ran away with the Giants' season, made off with their hearts, kicked holes in their soul.
Trapped in a Midnight Green nightmare.
For the sixth straight time, beaten by the Birds.
It never hurt more.
The Giants blew a 21-point lead in the last 8 minutes and fell, 38-31. Vick's scrambles, Jackson's last-second punt return and a few late, self-inflicted mistakes left them at 9-5, a game behind the Eagles in the NFC East and, once again, victim to their little sisters down the turnpike.
The Giants folded as if they knew it was inevitable.
"It didn't seem like they were in our heads when we were beating the crap out of them for the majority of the game," said defensive tackle Barry Cofield, who then softened: "They beat us. They played better than us six . . . out of the last six times."
Sharp math skills.
The Giants had won three straight since the Eagles beat them in November. They circled this one in red, and they hoped to hammer home their contention that they gave away that game in Philadelphia, with Eli Manning's four turnovers.
And then they gave another one away.
An inspirational sign in the Giants' locker room reads:
"WE ARE WHAT WE REPEATEDLY DO"
The Giants were poised to run at a home playoff game but now are in danger of missing the playoffs. If they do miss the playoffs, surely that could cause speculation about coach Tom Coughlin's future despite the Giants' unlikely Super Bowl win nearly 3 years ago.
They had blown a lead like this before, 4 years ago, when the Titans came from a 21-0 deficit.
They also had been bitten by a Birds punt return. In 2003, Brian Westbrook ran back a punt 84 yards for the winning touchdown. But that was just a 14-10 win.
This was epic.
Afterward, Coughlin was anything but the fearsome leader he so often affects to be.
"I've never been around anything like this in my life," Coughlin said. "It's about as empty as you get to feel in this business."
It's especially empty when your instructions are not followed.
Coughlin told his kick-coverage unit to beware of an onside kick after the Eagles scored to cut it to 31-17 with 7:43 to play. It did not heed his instructions, and Riley Cooper recovered the kick uncontested.
"All the people up front were told, 'Watch for the onside kick,' " Coughlin moaned. "We didn't have anybody around the ball."
With the score tied and 14 seconds to play, Coughlin told Matt Dodge, his rookie punter, to punt the ball out of bounds and avoid incendiary returner DeSean Jackson. But Zak DeOssie's snap was high, and Dodge had to leap. He then rushed and tried to push it out of bounds down the right sideline but the wind worked against him.
"At that point in the game, with [Jackson] back there, you don't punt into that," Coughlin said.
But Dodge did, a line drive that Jackson initially muffed. Jackson gathered it in and blew through the coverage as time expired.
With the cameras rolling, his composure disintegrated, Coughlin berated Dodge on the field.
"There was no explanation," Coughlin said. "There is no explanation."
Coughlin offered no real explanation for the rest of the collapse, either.
He didn't quite know how Brent Celek got free for a 65-yard touchdown catch-and-run two plays after the Giants took a 31-10 lead on Eli Manning's fourth touchdown pass.
Coughlin watched, apoplectic, as the onside kick worked.
Coughlin looked on, helpless, as Vick ran for 35 yards up the middle, then for 4 more to score and make it 31-24.
Coughlin nearly lost his mind when, on the next Giants possession, David Diehl false-started and short-circuited what might have been the killing field-goal drive. Instead, the Giants had to punt.
Coughlin wondered at how Vick got around his defense's left side and escaped for a 33-yard burst on third-and-10 at the Eagles' 12, then went up the middle for 22 more just before the 2-minute warning, which set up the tying touchdown.
"The quarterback, quite frankly, looked to me like he was looking to run," Coughlin observed . . . of the only quarterback in NFL history to have gained 1,000 yards rushing in a season. With 130 yards on 10 carries, it was Vick's 11th career 100-yard rushing game.
So, yes, after being pounded all day and sacked three times, Vick might have looked to run some.
The Giants had limited him to just 70 yards on 17 carries in the seven preceding quarters, including the first game. He was 14-for-21 for just 88 passing yards through three quarters of yesterday's game.
Coughlin insisted that his defense did not change as the game progressed. Some of his players swear they did not let up.
"I didn't see anybody giving anybody Gatorade baths," Coburn said. "We were not in a prevent defense."
Well . . .
"We made it easy for them," safety Antrel Rolle admitted.
"It'll be disgusting to watch the tape," Coburn said.
They will watch today, and then they will be off to plan for next week's game at Green Bay. They will try to put this one (and the other five) behind them.
"I'm not sure . . . we'll see if we're capable of that," Coburn said. "We'll show up like a team that's moved on, or we'll show up like a beaten team."
Like they did for the last 8 minutes of yesterday's nightmare.