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Bowen: Eagles' defensive backs pick good time to excel

TERRENCE BROOKS was only on the field because Jaylen Watkins had left with a concussion. Brooks plays special teams, hadn't played a defensive snap all season before Thursday's second half, but Watkins was down and the Eagles were hanging on by wind-numbed fingertips to a win that had initially looked like it might come easy.

TERRENCE BROOKS was only on the field because Jaylen Watkins had left with a concussion. Brooks plays special teams, hadn't played a defensive snap all season before Thursday's second half, but Watkins was down and the Eagles were hanging on by wind-numbed fingertips to a win that had initially looked like it might come easy.

Nothing comes easy to the 2016 Eagles, though.

Fourteen seconds left, Eli Manning 34 yards away from the victory that would have clinched a Giants playoff berth, tight end Will Tye looked wide-open as he headed for the right side of the end zone.

But Manning's pass was a balloon. Brooks came flying in, camped under it, and with five seconds left, came down with the Eagles' first victory since Nov. 13, by a 24-19 score.

"Those are the worst ones to try and catch, man," Brooks, 24, said, after his first career pick. "It felt like it was up there forever . . . Everything fell into place, man. I'm blessed."

His thinking, Brooks said, was, "I gotta have it."

He still had it long after the field had cleared - the ball was in his locker stall, destined to become a Christmas present for Brooks' 2-year-old son, Carter.

It was the second time the d-backs had saved the day. First play after the two-minute warning, fourth-and-6 from the Eagles' 37, Manning threw to rookie wideout Sterling Shepard near the Giants' sideline. Nolan Carroll reached in and ripped out the ball. He also might have interfered with Shepard, on an evening when ref Clete Blakeman seemed to be letting them play a little.

The Giants had all their timeouts remaining, so that play didn't end the game - the outcome remained in doubt until Brooks settled it - but Carroll's play restored the holiday cheer of a long-suffering Lincoln Financial Field crowd, a crowd that began the evening not believing its good fortune, then had occasion to curse its bad fortune, before equilibrium was restored.

When the Giants got the ball back after the Eagles couldn't manage a first down, they got it at their 15, with 1:41 left, and just one timeout. They got close, but not quite there - a situation Eagles fans know well.

The Eagles avoided going winless in the NFC East for the first time since 2005.

Late in the third quarter, the disaster to top all 2016 disasters seemed to be unfolding. There was a terrible one-two punch, when the Eagles once again couldn't convert a goal-line play, this on fourth-and-inches, a few plays after Carson Wentz went to the locker room for evaluation of a head injury. The Giants trailed by five but had all the momentum.

At this point in the season, the inability to move the pile and score a touchdown that would have restored a comfortable lead mattered more from a pride standpoint than anything else. The bigger disaster was that the one tangible accomplishment of this painful season was in danger. Until Olivier Vernon drove Wentz into the ground, drawing a roughing-the-passer penalty with 4:29 left in the third, at least the Eagles could say they had kept their rookie quarterback upright, ever ready to embrace yet another learning experience, in a season that should end with the conferring of an advanced degree.

If Wentz ended 2016 concussed, well, that would turn everything a little sour.

With backup quarterback Chase Daniel seeing his first action of the season, the slow-to-unfold fourth-down run by Ryan Mathews into the stacked middle of the Giants' line never had a chance, but at least Wentz did - after Malcolm Jenkins ended the ensuing Giants drive with his second Manning interception of the evening, Wentz trotted back onto the field and drove the Eagles 33 yards in seven plays for a 41-yard Caleb Sturgis field goal, the home team's only points of the second half.

"We've been in so many close games. To finally finish one . . . it puts a good taste in your mouth, for sure," said Wentz, who said he was "a little dizzy - got my bell rung a little bit," which sounds a lot like a concussion, but he passed the league protocol.

"I was cleared. I was good to go," he said to reporters questioning why the future of the franchise would go back into such a game, and eventually be put in position to try to throw a block on a reverse.

"Not really. Obviously, he's a tough kid . . . they went through the protocol," Eagles coach Doug Pederson said, when asked if he was surprised to see Wentz return and play. "It sends a great messeage to your locker room. There's your leader, there's your leader of your football team, there's your rookie quarterback doing what he enjoys doing, and that's just playing ball."

The most amazing thing Wentz did was avoid being sacked, on a night when the Giants came after him with abandon.

The magic numbers held - the Eagles are now 6-0 when they allow 23 points or fewer, 0-9 when they allow 24 or more.

Eagles fans hadn't seen a 7-0 lead since the Nov. 13 Atlanta game, hadn't seen a 14-0 lead since the season opener against Cleveland.

So, even though it was too late to mean anything in terms of making the playoffs, the two quick first-quarter touchdowns by the home team Thursday night were greeted with much enthusiasm in South Philadelphia, the Eagles going to halftime ahead, 21-13.

The Eagles' offensive line blew huge holes in a defense known for stopping the run, at least on the first series. Ryan Mathews went 17 yards behind returning right tackle Lane Johnson on the Eagles' first snap, and Darren Sproles, back from a concussion, ran 25 yards for a TD to the same side.

Then, Jenkins took Manning's first interception 34 yards, Manning throwing into double coverage on third-and-5, and the Eagles had a real toehold on their first victory in more than a month.

The Giants got on the board with a couple of 35-yard field goals, but Nelson Agholor - yes, Nelson Agholor - sneaked behind Eli Apple for a 40-yard touchdown pass from Wentz. Apple started for Janoris Jenkins, sidelined with a back injury. Agholor made up for an earlier drop, Wentz for an earlier interception after a lengthy scramble.

But the now-10-5 Giants, who could have clinched a playoff berth with a victory, looked quite sharp on their final possession of the half, moving 84 yards in 12 plays, ending with a 13-yard Manning touchdown pass to Sterling Shepard that set the halftime score. Shepard flung Jenkins to the outside and went inside.

Wentz went into halftime 8-for-14 for 108 yards, the pick and the TD.

Manning was 16-for-27 for 161 yards, a TD and a pick at the break.

The Eagles' reprise of their original starting offensive line lasted only a few series. Left guard Allen Barbre reinjured his hamstring and was replaced by Stefen Wisniewski. Later, leading rusher Mathews left with a stinger.

Wentz finished 13-for-24 for 152 yards, setting a franchise record with 352 completions, breaking the mark set by Sam Bradford in 2015.

Defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz's embattled secondary fought tooth-and-nail, on a night when Manning targeted Odell Beckham Jr. 20 times, connecting on 11, for 150 yards. Manning threw 63 passes, completing 38, for 356 yards and a touchdown - but also throwing those three picks.

"It means we're still fighting. Regardless of our record, regardless of what's happening throughout the game, we're still fighting 'til the end," Carroll said. "That's a testament to this team. Guys don't stop. The guys don't quit, regardless of what's going on, and I think that's the best quality we have in this locker room."