There are losses, bad losses, and hard losses. And then there are losses that leave your jaw on the ground as you try, stunned and numb, to comprehend what you’ve just seen.
The New York Giants and their fans in the Meadowlands know.
A few generations of players ago, Philadelphia beat New York on an inexplicable last-minute fumble by quarterback Joe Pisarcik, who had bungled a handoff to fullback Larry Csonka. It was inexplicable because there was no reason to hand the ball off; the Eagles had used up all their timeouts, and Pisarcik needed only to take the snap and kneel on third-and-2 to kill the 31 seconds left on the clock. The CBS telecast had already run its credits when Pisarcik got the ball, turned right to find Csonka heading to his left, kept turning and tried to shove the ball at Csonka’s hip, and could only watch as the ball hit the ground and Eagles cornerback Herm Edwards – playing to win the game — gratefully accepted the gift and carried it 26 yards to the end zone. Eagles 19, Giants 17.
This one was worse.
“I’ve never been around anything like this in my life,” Giants coach Tom Coughlin said after Philadelphia’s 38-31 victory Sunday on a last-second punt return for a touchdown by DeSean Jackson. “It’s about as empty as you can feel in this business.”
The Eagles trailed by twenty-one with eight minutes to play. They got a 65-yard touchdown strike from Michael Vick to tight end Brent Celek; easily recovered an onside kick at the 7:28 mark and drove 57 yards – Vick scrambling for 35 and then scoring on a four-yard run – to cut the lead to seven; tied the game on an 88-yard drive that included a 33-yard scramble on third-and-10; then kicked off to the Giants with 1:16 to play and no timeouts remaining.
Two incompletions and a sack of Manning left the Giants on their own 29, fourth-and-17, fourteen seconds to go until overtime. A punt, a Hail Mary, and a crucial coin toss were sure to ensue.
“You have to play for 60 minutes,” Giants linebacker Keith Bulluck said later, “because in those 60 minutes anything can happen.”
The snap was high, and rookie punter Matt Dodge went up to snare it, then hurried to get off a kick over the presumed onrushing linemen. The Eagles were not coming after the kick, however, so Dodge had time to set himself to kick the ball out of bounds, the original plan. Whatever else happened, Dodge knew he didn’t want to punt the ball where DeSean Jackson, last year’s league leader in average punt return yardage and touchdowns, could get his hands on it.
Dodge didn’t realize he had time, however. He kicked a line drive to Jackson at the Philly 35. Jackson muffed it near the left hashmark, picked it up, retreated to his 30, then spotted a seam up the middle. The line-drive punt and delay in returning it had allowed his blockers to get set, and he ran straight up the hash line, juked right at the 36, followed a diagonal path through the remnants of the Giants punt team, and had clear sailing for the last 45 yards. He ran horizontally along the two-yard-line until he was certain there was no time left on the clock, and then he ran on in for the victory.
“I always try to do something out of the ordinary,” Jackson said in the aftermath. “I probably would have dove in from the 12-yard-line if I could. I knew nobody was going to catch me.”
New Meadowlands Stadium had its first signature moment from Big Blue. It was not a happy parallel.
When Pisarcik committed The Fumble – Eagles fans know it as The Miracle in the Meadowlands – the game pitted a 6-5 Philadelphia team against a 5-6 Giants squad with four games still left to play. The Eagles squeaked into the playoffs at 9-7, then lost in the Wild Card round. The Giants collapsed to finish 6-10, as fans flew a banner over the stadium reading, “15 Years of Lousy Football – We’ve Had Enough.”
There was more at stake in the immediate future on Sunday. Both teams were 9-4, tied for the lead in the NFC East. With a win, the Giants would have held the inside track for a first-round playoff bye, since they hold the tiebreaker edge over the NFC North-leading Chicago Bears (9-4) by virtue of their win over Chicago in Week 4. Now they trail the Eagles by a game, will lose any tie-break with Philadelphia (who beat them twice), and are fighting for the two wild-card spots with 10-4 New Orleans and 8-6 Tampa Bay.
“I’ll take full responsibility for the last play,” Coughlin said after he’d cooled down for a few minutes. “With [Jackson] back there, you don’t punt the ball to him.”
He should also take full responsibility for the success of the Eagles’ onside kick. He elected not to put the hands team out on the field, not expecting Philadelphia to try the onside with seven minutes left, trailing by 14. “All people up front [on the kick-return team] were told to watch out for the onside kick,” he said in his postgame comments. Maybe so, but they were in full retreat when Riley Cooper recovered the kick for the Eagles with no Giant in sight.
As deflating as the loss was to the Giants, it was equally exhilarating for the Eagles. “When we came into the locker room, it was almost like we won the Super Bowl,” Brent Celek told The New York Times.
There is a good chance the New Yorkers could face the Eagles in Philadelphia in the first round of the playoffs. Having awakened some unfortunate ghosts in their New Jersey domain, they might be just as happy to be on the road.