Running down a dream
"Earth, Wind and Fire" run wild as New York starts to run away with the East
When the Giants and Eagles match up, you can count on three things: A physical game, fumbles by Giants running backs, and a few whacky surprises. Tonight's game was no different, and with the additional element of all four NFC East teams in the mix for postseason appearances the intensity level was palpable. In the end, the Eagles lack of a classic power running game and a brilliant challange by Tom Coughlin (and Eli Manning's persistence in challenging it) would play major roles in the outcome.
The physical aspect of this game was the Giants running game. 45 carries for 219 yards of rushing offense - lead by Brandon Jacobs with 26 carries for 126 yards - unseats the Falcons as tops in the NFL. But there were some tense moments for "Earth, Wind and Fire" as well; the fumblitis portion of the bill was also a part of the show as each member of the power trio coughed up the ball, losing one on a turnover. And now for the whacky: how about Tom Coughlin challanging (and winning) an illegal forward pass penalty call on Manning? Or his declining an encroachment penalty in the fourth quarter that would have given the Giants a 4th and inches while they're trying to hold possession and put the game away? It was all a part of the thrilling Sunday night affair that saw the visitors hold on to a six-point lead and - more importantly - take a huge step towards solidifying a first place finish in the NFC East with a 36-31 Giants victory at Lincoln Financial Field.
The Giants went into this game without starting LB Gerris Wilkinson or CB Kevin Dockery, while the Eagles were relying on less than 100% versions of Asante Samuel and Joselio Hanson in addition to deactivating Lito Sheppard due to a groin injury. There were still plenty of big hits to go around - and even though both defenses, combined, tallied just one sack (Philadelphia's DE Trent Cole), both quarterbacks took a number of hard hits throughout the night.
The game started off on an ominous note for New York, as Eli Manning's second pass of the game - from the Giants 35 yard line - was tipped and hauled in by DT Mike Patterson who rumbled for 21 yards before being tackled at the Giants 9 yard line. First and goal for Philadelphia. Two plays later, the Eagles lined up in the "flavor of the month" Wildcat formation and talented rookie receiver DeSean Jackson sprinted to the pylon to put the Eagles ahead 7-0.
The Giants did not wait too long to respond and drove 80 yards on 10 plays, taking 4:57 off the clock - thanks to 37 combined rushing yards between Brandon Jacobs and Derrick Ward, and a 22-yard completion to TE Kevin Boss. On 3rd and 9 from the Eagles 17 yard line, Manning called the defensive formation and changed the play at the line; he took three steps back and fired a pass over the middle between two defenders to number 17 Plaxico Burress for the touchdown - Giants 7, Eagles 7.
On the ensuing kickoff, return man Quintin Demps was cutting from the sidelines at the 25-yard line when Ahmad Bradshaw stripped the ball, which bounced a few times before being scooped up by Chase Blackburn who ran it down to the Philadelphia 13. The Giants got a bit too conservative at this point; high on their success running the ball in the previous drive, offensive coordinator Kevin Gilbride called three straight Brandon Jacob's runs which only produced 4 yards. On 4th and 6, John Carney was brought in to kick the field goal and put the Giants ahead 10-7.
The Eagles proceeded to go 3-and-out in their next possession, and the Sav Rocca punt sailed 62 yards into the Giants end zone for the touchback. The Giants mounted another 10 play, 80-yard drive; a key 3rd and 7 completion to Amani Toomer for 10 yards put the Giants at Philly's 1-yard line, where on the next play Manning found Kevin Boss over the middle for the touchdown to put the Giants up 17-7.
Philadelphia puinted on their next possesion, as did the Giants. As did the Eagles. The Giants started that drive from their own 22, and on the second play Jacobs - who appeared to have the first down - made a rarely seen maneuver and leaped over an Eagles defender who was coming in low. Jacob's lost the ball after he was was popped high by linebacker Chris Gocong at the NY 45-yard line, who also recovered it. It would prove to be a costly fumble by Jacobs - and a costly (and stupid) unnecessary roughness call on CB Sam Madison would give the Eagles 1st and 10 at the Giants 20. two plays later Donovan McNabb hit Jason Avant on a 10-yard TD strike to make it 17-14 in favor of the Giants. John Carney and David Akers exchanged field goals before the half, and at halftime the score was 20-17.
Philadelphia got the kickoff to start the 3rd quarter, and Quintin Demps made up for the earlier fumble a little bit with a 37-yard return to the Eagles 40. McNabb wasted no time in giving control of this battle back to the Eagles, hitting Kendra Wilkinson's fiance WR Hank Baskett for a 7-yard touchdown to put the Giants in the hole, 24-20.
The Giants next drive would prove to be the key to this game; not because of a particular play or performance, but because of the afforementioned challange by Tom Coughlin. After an 11 play, 49-yard drive, New York found itself faced with a 3rd and 10 from the Eagles 20-yard line. Manning dropped back to pass and appeared to have both the time and the open field ahead to run with it. He decided to pull up short of the line of scrimmage and fire a low 19-yard pass to Kevin Boss down to the 1. Flags immediately flew to the turf and Manning was called for what appeared to be a clear-cut illegal forward pass. Manning headed to the sidelines to plead his case to Coughlin, and moments later Coughlin conferred with the referee and threw the red flag. The play was reversed because the rule states that the quarterback's entire body must be over the line; the replay showed that Manning's right foot was still behind it upon release. "I think the way the rule is written, it was worth taking a shot at it," Manning told NBC sideline reporter Andrea Kraemer after the game. "If you have one toe on the line of scrimmage, then it's a legal pass. I thought it was worth the risk." Two plays later, Jacobs broke through the line for a 3-yard touchdown to give the Giants a 27-24 lead.
John Carney booted his third field goal of the night 1:26 into the 4th quarter to extend the Giants lead 30-24. McNabb and company went 3-and-out again on the next possession, and Rocca's punt was fielded by Domenik Hixon, who's 73-yard return for a touchdown was nullified because of a holding call against SS Michael Johnson. Ahamad Bradshaw came into the game and immediately ripped-off a 23 yard run to the Philly 17; Bradshaw contributed his fumble of the night at the tail end of that run, but the ball sailed out of bounds so the Giants retained possession. A Jacobs run to the Philadelphia 6 was challenged by Andy Reid - "out of desperation" as John Madden put it - who thought jacobs fumbled on the play. The challenge was for naught as Jacobs' elbow and knees were obviously down as the ball came out. The very next play, Reid thre the red flag again to challenge the touchdown signaled by the refs on Jacobs' 3-yard run. Reid lost his 2nd timeout after losing that challenge, and Jacobs' 3-yard touchdown run stood as called to put the Giants ahead 36-24. Coughlin decided to go for the 2-point conversion, but the pass attempt to Plaxico Burress was defended nicely by Asante Samuel.
McNabb passed for 57 yards and scrambled for another 11 on the next drive, and his 2-yard touchdown pass to WR Kevin Curtis pulled the Eagles within five, 36-31. Time and timeouts worked against Philly from that point, however. LB Chase Blackburn looked like he was shot from a cannon as he cut across the line and nailed Brian Westbrook on 4th and1 for no gain. The Giants took over on downs and ran out the clock.
The Giants victory tonight - along with their road win in Pittsburgh and dismantling of Dallas a week ago - was the exclamation point on a statement they've been trying to make since Thursday, September 4th: No Super Bowl hangovers, no slowing down, no resting on past achievements. They intend to go right back to the big game, and this new defense is every bit as good as the old one. This win in Philly solidifies their rightful place as the elite team in the NFC. There's no swagger, no over-confidence. Tom Coughlin and his crew has this team focused, has them believing that a trip to Raymond James Stadium on February 1st is not only a possibility, but an expectation. It's too bad that the Giants won't face the 9-0 Tennessee Titans this year unless both teams meet in Super Bowl 43.
Then again, maybe it's not so bad after all.
NOTES & ANALYSIS:
*Mission accomplished: Justin Tuck and Mathias Kiwanuka had been quoted all week regarding the importance of stopping RB Brian Westrook. "Obviously we know that he is the catalyst of that offense" said Tuck in an interview with Michael Eisen on Thursday. "Everybody wants to talk about McNabb. McNabb is great in own right, but what they want to do and do well is get the ball to #36. So we definitely have to (stop him); everybody else has tried to stop him and now it is our turn. It is a great challenge for us and we are looking forward to it." The Giants held #36 to 26 yards rushing, 33 yards receiving and no touchdowns.
*No back left behind: Jacobs 126 yards and 7.2 per carry average once again led the way, but as per SOP Derrick Ward chipped in 17 carries for 53 yards (3.1 yards per carry, his lowest single game average of the season) and Ahmad Bradshaw made his usual 4th quarter appearance with 5 carries for 38 yards (7.6 yards per carry). The Giants have to be considered the best running game in the NFL hands down. They don't have the raw talent of an Adrian Peterson or Brian Westbrook, or the speed of a Marion Barber - but they have a game plan that works, and three bruising backs that can all shoulder the load when called upon. Even Clinton Portis, with the unbelievable season he is having, can't match the yardage or physical impact on an opposing defense.
*Time changes everything: The Giants dominated the game clock, holding possession for over 39 minutes. In the first quarter, Philadelphia had the ball for exactly 63 seconds.
*It can drive you Mad-ison: As previously mentioned, CB Sam Madison made a bonehead play in hitting an Eagles reciever out of bounds to take a penalty at a crucial point in the game. While it wasn't flagrant, it was certainly - to quote the rule book - unnecessary. While it can happen to anybody, Madison is supposed to be the "veteran" on this squad. FB Madison Hedgecock has turned out to be an upper-echelon blocker in the NFL. This is a good thing, because if his job depended on him making catches he'd be posting on carrerbuilder . com : Entering the game with a team leading 5 drops, Manning (or Gilbride perhaps) inexplicably called Hedgecock's number on a 3rd and 6 from the Philly 19-yard line early in the first quarter. As expected, the pass sailed right through his hands, forcing the Giants to settle for a field goal. When will Gilbride catch on? Better yet, when will Hedgecock catch it ?
*Blackburn bookends: LB Chase Blackburn had another solid performance in his limited defensive role and on special teams. He recovered the Quintin Demps fumble in the first quarter on a heads-up play, and his tackle on Brian Westbrook on 4th and 1 in the games waning moments sealed the deal. Blackburn has quietly put together an impressive year.
Eli Manning quote courtesy of NBC - Justin Tuck quote courtesy of Michael Eisen & giants.com - stats source: sportsline.com