NNAMDI ASOMUGHA could only laugh, once his heart rate had returned to normal. "It's was Giants and Eagles, man," he said. "To the end. Just a crazy finish."

The final score was Eagles 19, Giants 17. That is what it said on the scoreboard. It is hard to explain how close it came to not happening. The Eagles blew a lead in the fourth quarter, then got it back again, then did their best to hold on against Giants quarterback Eli Manning, who has made fourth-quarter comebacks his reason for being the last couple of years.

Twice in the final 63 seconds, pass-interference penalties prolonged the Giants' final drive. One, on Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie, was justified. The other, on Asomugha, was invented by the man who threw the flag. And then a third pass-interference call, this time on Giants receiver Ramses Barden, was also called. He was called for offensive interference against Asomugha.

"I don't think it was a makeup call," he said.

New refs, same as the old refs. After all of the laundry was picked up and all of the yards were added and subtracted, here was the situation: Giants kicker Lawrence Tynes was looking at a 54-yarder with 15 seconds remaining to win the game.

Snap, hold, kick.

Wide left.

Pandemonium at Lincoln Financial Field. But then the whistles were blowing and the striped arms were waving. The Eagles had called timeout before the kick. Tynes was going to get another try, and Eagles coach Andy Reid was going to be forever tarred by this newest adventure in clock management.

So, again.

Snap, hold, kick.


This time, the pandemonium was justified. The Eagles are now 3-1 and their defense, which had played so well for the first 31/2 quarters, was let off the hook. In the middle of everything was Asomugha, who left the game in the second quarter after getting poked in the eye. The press box was told that Asomugha was going to be taken to Wills Eye Hospital for an exam, and Asomugha said that was the plan as he sat in the training room at the start of the third quarter.

But then he was back. "I just wanted to play," he said.

But how did he convince the doctors to clear his return?

He was taking various eye tests, and Asomugha said with a smile, "Just say I passed." As he said the word "passed," he made air quote marks with his fingers.

The whole thing was wild. The Eagles didn't used to be able to play this kind of game. They weren't good enough on defense to even think about pulling it off. They were too easy to run on, too prone to mistakes. For too long, they were built to win shootouts and nothing but shootouts - you know, last team with the ball wins.

But on Sunday night, deep into the second quarter, the scoreboard was not lying when it said Eagles 0, Giants 0. And at halftime, it was Eagles 7, Giants 3. The yards were hard to come by, and the hitting was a notch above normal, and both offenses approached the whole business with a significant amount of caution.

The Eagles' offense, in recent years, has not been all that interested in caution. It has been designed to be explosive instead. There are probably a dozen reason why Reid and Marty Mornhinweg don't like running the ball but, in the last couple of years one of them was that they always seemed to feel the need to score more points, to build a bigger cushion, because the defense could not be trusted to hold.

But this was the year that the defense was going to prove it could be trusted. This was the year and this was the game - and then it all blew up on one drive in the fourth quarter, one drive where the defenders couldn't seem to do anything right, where they found themselves out of position at times and suckered by play action at others, where Manning carved them up and put the Giants in front, 17-16, on a 6-yard pass to Bear Pascoe.

It knocked them back. It raised all of the old questions. But Michael Vick gave the defense another life with a late scoring drive that began at the Eagles' 17-yard line. A 25-yard Alex Henery field goal with 1:49 remaining put the Eagles back in front, 19-17.

And then came the circus - of flags and timeouts and 54-yarders that were no good in the night.

And then came the realization that the defense ultimately held against Manning, the great comeback artist.

"It's big for us, a huge win for us," middle linebacker DeMeco Ryans said. "It's our first division win. And to do it against Eli, the defending Super Bowl champ, is very big. It's definitely a step in the right direction."

Cornerback Brandon Boykin said, "We stepped up to the challenge. It was tough. It was either win or lose right there. But we definitely stepped up our defense. And knowing how good a fourth-quarter quarterback he is, it's definitely an achievement."

Because the defense did hold on in the end. Barely.