EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. -- The day in the NFC East was one of close calls and missed opportunities. The Dallas Cowboys survived their close call and the New York Giants missed their opportunity and now have given away their division lead more quickly than even their most strenuous doubters could have predicted they would. A 17-10 home loss to a depleted Philadelphia Eagles team they should have beaten left emotions at opposite poles as the clock ticked past midnight and the combatants tried to sum it all up.
"That is the biggest disappointment we've had around here in a long time," Giants coach Tom Coughlin said, ignoring the fact that it's not even the biggest disappointment they've had against the Eagles in the past calendar year. "We got physically handled."
"This is the best division in football," said Eagles cornerback Nnamdi Asomugha. "It's always a big game. Even the Redskins played the Cowboys tough today. That's the thing about the NFC East. There's no clear-cut team."
They can all thank the Giants for that, because the Giants are the team that had a chance to run away from the division pack but lost the past two games while the Cowboys ran up from behind and tied them. Had they won Sunday, the Giants would be a game in front and the Eagles would be buried for good. But by failing to hammer that final nail when they had the chance, the Giants have left the division wide open.
Now, the Cowboys have the NFC East lead based on the better division record and have two head-to-head games remaining against the Giants. Should one of those teams win both of those games, they'd have a chance to take control of the race. The Giants, who had control and have given it back, watch the standings closely and know this well.
"With six games left now, you're aware of where everybody sits and what the records are," Giants quarterback Eli Manning said. "We've got a six-game season now, and a tough schedule. Every game is important. Every game is big."
The Cowboys are in the same spot, but they have the 3-7 (albeit red-hot) Dolphins and the 3-7 Cardinals the next two weeks while the Giants get the 7-3 Saints and the 10-0 Packers in advance of their Dec. 11 showdown in Dallas. That scheduling would seem to favor Dallas, but should they slip up and the Giants struggle against the conference's top teams ... well, yeah, the Eagles are only two games back, have a 3-1 division record and obliterated the Cowboys in their only meeting this year.
If Philadelphia, which has blown fourth-quarter leads in five of its six losses, were to somehow win all of its remaining games, it would be 10-6 with a 5-1 division record and could conceivably still claim the crown. It's a huge "if," considering that the Eagles have not been adept at actually winning games this year, but it's mathematically possible. If they can continue to play the kind of brutally physical football they played in the trenches against the Giants on Sunday night, they're going to continue to find themselves in their games. They just need to keep coming up with ways to actually win them.
"We feel we have to win all of them," Asomugha said. "So we really haven't been paying attention to the standings."
In spite of their inspired near-upset of Dallas earlier in the day, the Redskins are the only NFC East team out of contention. But each of the other three has challenges yet to overcome. The Cowboys need to stay away from the kind of mistakes that cost them second-half leads earlier this year against the Jets, Lions and Patriots -- three painful games that, had they tipped the other way, would have put the Cowboys in firm control of this division.
The Giants need to stop getting physically beaten up on the lines. Their offensive line can't open a hole for any of their running backs and, Sunday night, couldn't keep the Eagles' fearsome pass rush off Manning. Their defensive line did a nice job bottling up the Eagles' LeSean McCoy (until his final run of the night, during which he went 60 yards to ice the game), but at the expense of the pass rush with which they generally thrive. No team can get beaten up in the trenches the way the Giants have this year and keep winning games. No team can give up as many points as it scores -- as the Giants have this year -- and expect to run away with its division.
And the Eagles? Their challenge is simply to find a way to win each of their remaining six games. Each game they've played this year has offered them an opportunity to win it late, but Sunday was the first time they managed to seize that opportunity -- the first time they took a punch and didn't crumble. Vince Young's 18-play, 80-yard fourth-quarter touchdown drive, on which the Eagles converted six third-down plays, was the kind of drive they hadn't been able to put together when they needed one all year. And Jason Babin's sack and forced fumble against Manning on the ensuing Giants possession was the kind of play the Eagles' defense hasn't been able to make against an opponent in the fourth quarter with the game on the line.
"We've been in that situation before and we haven't made the big play," Asomugha said. "So the sack alone, and then the fumble, and then for us to recover it, everybody was like, 'Thank goodness.'"
It may well be too little too late for the Eagles, and they know that. But the standings and the calendar still say they're alive, and that the NFC East remains wide open. The Giants didn't have to allow that to happen, but they have, and as a result it looks like this topsy-turvy NFC East season will go down to the wire.