New Meadowlands, new nightmare

EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. -- Tom Coughlin slammed his oversized chart to the ground, threw off his headset, and surrendered to the same vile rage that was consuming his entire fan base.

Millions of men, women and children dressed in their Simms and LT and Eli jerseys were throwing things in their living rooms, cursing an impossibly cruel twist of fate, and screaming at the high-def image of Coughlin while the coach was screaming at the distraught punter before him.

"Out of bounds," Coughlin shouted into Matt Dodge's facemask.

Dodge had punted the ball very much in bounds in the final seconds, right into DeSean Jackson's wheelhouse, and 65 yards later the Philadelphia Eagles had the NFC East zipped inside their travel bags, and the New York Giants had sole possession of a regular-season defeat as haunting as any in their 85-year history.

Yeah, this one hurt the locals a wee bit more than losing Cliff Lee to the Phillies.

"It ranks right up there with the worst we've ever had," Giants owner John Mara said as he hurried for the exit.

The Mara family has suffered its fair share, and Wellington's son wouldn't embrace the notion that the transcendent performance of a breathless athlete, Michael Vick, might have mitigated the Giants' pain.

"No, it doesn't matter," Mara said. "All we had to do is make one play, and we didn't make it."

So they will tell ghost stories about this in the next stadium built in the Jersey marshes, just like the old timers still talk about Joe Pisarcik's fumble in the old place, and how Herm Edwards' clean scoop for a touchdown reminded everyone that no matter how hopeless a situation appears, you play to win the game.

Thirty-two years after Larry Csonka wouldn't take Pisarcik's handoff to run out the Giants Stadium clock against the Eagles, Coughlin christened the new building with a Giants-Eagles disaster he will take to his coaching grave.

"I've never been around anything like this in my life," Coughlin said.

The good news? He'll never be around anything like this ever again.

"It's about as empty as you get to feel in this business," Coughlin conceded.

Thirty-two years from now, when this New Meadowlands Stadium is facing its own wrecking ball, Eagles 38, Giants 31 will surely be remembered as the most shocking regular-season defeat this ballpark has ever staged.

The Giants held a 31-10 lead with less than eight minutes to play. Eli Manning had thrown four touchdown passes, the defense had roughed up Vick the way it had roughed up a lot of quarterbacks, and Eagles coach Andy Reid was committing unforced errors all over the field.

Late in the first half, Reid foolishly decided against running out the clock, Pisarcik style, leading to a Philly turnover and a Manning touchdown pass to Hakeem Nicks with five seconds left. Early in the fourth quarter, Reid failed to challenge a Jackson fumble, a failure that only led to Manning's final touchdown pass and the 31-10 lead.

The Giants were in complete command of the day, their division, their destiny, at least until Vick pressed the thrust button on his own video game while everyone else watched.

It was an absurd display of poise, precision and speed. While the Giants powered down, as if mesmerized by the performance, Vick threw for two touchdowns, ran for one, and made like Barry Sanders on long, winding dashes -- "just slithering his way out of there," Coughlin said -- that broke the Giants' spirit and emboldened his own team.

In between, the Eagles tried an onside kick the Giants weren't prepared for. Reid actually outcoached Coughlin on this one play, and it altered the dynamic of the game.

"We didn't put our hands team in there," Coughlin said.

He had no good reason not to put his hands team in there.

In the end, after Vick made it a 31-31 game, after the refs decided Dodge should punt with 14 seconds left in regulation instead of 12, "everyone in that stadium knew what I was trying to do with that ball," the punter said.

He was trying to kick it to Reid, not Jackson.

"It wasn't rocket science," Dodge said.

But the snap was high, Dodge lost his rhythm making the catch, and the final act of this Shakespearean tragedy unfolded on cue. The Giants had lost five straight to the Eagles, and they were about to make it six.

"They're not really going to kick it to me," Jackson said as he waited.

Dodge kicked it to him. Jackson dropped it before scooping it up, Herm Edwards style, and racing through a crease and into the clear.

Dodge made a feeble dive for the return man's feet, and the last Giant with a shot, Zak DeOssie, thought he had the perfect angle to play the role of game-saving hero.

"I thought I was going to stop him," DeOssie said, "but I don't have eyes in the back of my head."

Philly's Jason Avant blasted him, blindsided him, and that was that. As his player headed for the end zone, Reid told himself, "This is a beautiful thing."

Bad foot and all, Jackson finished the first walk-off punt return in NFL history by styling it, taunting the Giants, racing across the 1-yard line with the scoreboard clock already at zero until finally, mercifully, crossing the goal line.

All these years after Herm Edwards spiked the ball in Giants Stadium, DeSean Jackson fired his into the New Meadowlands Stadium crowd.

"You could have never told me in a million years the outcome would be like this," Antrel Rolle said.

"I've never been a part of anything like it," Justin Tuck said.

Tuck nominated Vick for league MVP, and the rest of the Giants ran out of ways to describe the devastation of this Miracle in the Meadowlands sequel. Vick wasn't yet born when Pisarcik fumbled the ball, so he was more familiar with the Jim Fassel-era playoff collapses against Minnesota and San Francisco.

But this one might prevent the Giants from even making the tournament. If it does, the enduring image of this epic defeat will not be that of Vick or Jackson sprinting toward paydirt.

It will be the sight of Coach Coughlin living out his worst nightmare, ranting and raving along with millions of brokenhearted fans.

Ian O'Connor is a columnist for ESPNNewYork.com. You can follow him on Twitter.

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