EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. -- The New York Giants spent the better part of three quarters making Eagles quarterback Michael Vick look pedestrian. They battered him with a variety of blitzes as the Giants took what appeared to be a commanding 31-10 lead in the fourth quarter.
What happened next will be talked about by Eagles fans for years to come. And no matter how hard they try, the Giants won't be able to purge a stunning 38-31 loss from their memories. Anyone who says they saw this coming should be labeled a liar because nothing in Vick's game Sunday suggested he was about to slip on his cape midway through the fourth quarter.
The Eagles (10-4) now have sole possession of first place in the NFC East and the Giants (9-5) will have to rally to make the playoffs. All hope is not lost, but now's not a good time to convince Giants fans of that. When quarterback Eli Manning threw an 8-yard touchdown pass to tight end Kevin Boss with 8:17 left in the fourth quarter, the Giants held a 31-10 lead. New York defensive coordinator Perry Fewell had put together a brilliant game plan to confuse and frustrate Vick, but one play provided the Eagles a shred of hope.
Vick found tight end Brent Celek racing down the seam and delivered a perfect pass over the outstretched arms of Giants defensive end Justin Tuck, who had dropped back in coverage. Celek seemed so surprised to be in the open field that he frantically changed directions several times for no apparent reason.
What happened next probably will be left out of the Tom Coughlin biography, if he chooses a generous author.
The Giants' coach said his players were warned about a potential onside kick, but apparently it wasn't enough of a concern to send out the hands team. And when the ageless David Akers induced a perfect hop, rookie wide receiver Riley Cooper caught the ball with no Giants player in sight. Replays showed that Giants reserve wide receiver Duke Calhoun didn't seem overly interested in making a play on the ball. The Eagles' sideline erupted and you could sense that something remarkable might happen.
"[Special teams coach] Bobby [April] did a great job with that," said Eagles coach Andy Reid, who was drenched in Gatorade by center Mike McGlynn during his postgame address to the players. "That was a surprise onside. In other words, we didn't have our hands people in there, you know our onside kick people in there."
Down the hall, Coughlin was defending his decision to stay with the normal personnel.
"There were still seven and a half minutes to go and they were down two scores, so we didn't think it was necessary to do that at the time," Coughlin said. "There was no reason for us not to make a better play on the ball. We didn't have anybody even around the ball."
Coughlin further explained that having the normal personnel in the game gave the Giants a chance for a better return. And if someone could remind me of the last time the Giants had a big kickoff return, perhaps that explanation would hold water.
Given new life, Vick simply took over the football game. On the second play after the onside kick, Vick scrambled up the middle for 35 yards to the Giants' 9-yard line. And on third-and-goal from the 4, Vick raced around the right side for a touchdown. Everyone in the stadium knew he was going to run the ball, but it didn't matter. Doubt had come to visit the Giants' sideline and a false start penalty helped kill what could've been a game-sealing drive.
The Eagles got the ball back on their 12-yard line with three minutes and no timeouts left, which was not an issue for Vick. On third-and-10, he scrambled to the left and then raced for 33 yards. I'm not sure if the Eagles were sending in passing plays at that point, because it was obvious he was destroying the Giants with his legs. Vick ran for 94 of his 130 yards in the fourth quarter, and he finally let one of his teammates get involved when he found Jeremy Maclin for a game-tying 13-yard touchdown pass.
Things were going so poorly for the Giants at that point that it would've been wise to cut their losses and head to overtime. Instead, they were forced to punt with 14 seconds showing on the clock. Coughlin said rookie Matt Dodge had been instructed to punt the ball out of bounds, but he instead sent a line drive toward DeSean Jackson, who had time to muff the ball before making the play of the season.
Jackson darted right and then benefited from a crushing block by wide receiver Jason Avant. Once Jackson slipped past Dodge, it was obvious that the game was over. As Jackson tends to do, he made an abrupt stop at the goal line and raced to his left in order to milk the clock. By that time, there was pandemonium on the Eagles' sideline.
"Get your butt in the end zone," is what Eagles safety Quintin Mikell remembers saying as Jackson put one last dagger in the Giants. Mikell, one of the veterans on this team, said he'd never seen his head coach this emotional after a game.
Asked if he can recall being so emotional after a win, Reid said, "You know, I can't name another one of these. This is a special one. I mean, this is exciting. This was exciting for you guys; it's a great day to be a Philadelphia writer."
Reid admitted that he "goofed" when he didn't challenge a Jackson fumble early in the fourth quarter. At the time, it looked like the play would end any hope of an Eagles comeback. But on a day when the Eagles scored 28 points to win a game in the fourth quarter, Reid's gaffe is only a footnote. Vick can erase a lot of mistakes.
"He just had this determined look on his face," said left guard Todd Herremans. "It's like he's saying, 'I'm about to win this game. If you want to help, you're more than welcome.'"
So the Eagles went along for the ride.