In 1978, the New York Giants suffered the “Miracle at the Meadowlands.”
Thirty-two years later, they endured the “Miracle at the New Meadowlands” against the same team.
With so much more at stake on Sunday, the latter was much worse for the complacent Giants (9-5) and far more rewarding for the explosive Philadelphia Eagles (10-4), which found another creative way to beat their hated division rival for the sixth straight time and take a stranglehold on the NFC East lead with just two weeks to play in the 2010 NFL regular season.
Considering the circumstances – with a potential two seed and a first-round playoff bye on the line during a wide open regular season throughout the league – the defeat might be the Giants’ worst ever.
Blowing a 21-point lead with about a half-quarter left, and losing, 38-31, on a 65-yard punt return by DeSean Jackson, on the game’s final play, was at the very least, the Giants’ most disheartening loss in their long rivalry with the Eagles.
The incredible ending provided by Jackson, was the second of two 65-yard scores for the Eagles in the final 7:28 of the game.
The first, was a career long 65-yard touchdown reception by tight end Brent Celek (2 catches, 72 yards, 1 TD) on a pass from quarterback Michael Vick (21-35, 242 yards, 3 TD, 1 INT, 3 sacks) just 45 seconds after the Giants’ quarterback Eli Manning (23-39, 289 yards, 4 TD, 1 INT, 2 sacks) threw his fourth touchdown pass of the game to give New York a seemingly commanding 31-10 lead, with 8:17 left in the game.
In between, were two other scores that each involved the athletic Vick, whom the Giants were able to contain for the first 40 minutes.
Right after Celek’s score, the Eagles easily recovered an onside kick, with the Giants napping. Kicker David Akers did a great job of bouncing the ball high in the air so Riley Cooper could recover.
Instead of having its hands team in at the Philadelphia 40 yard-line, New York lined up with its return team standing at the Eagles’ 44-yard line, leaning back toward the Giants’ goal line, awaiting a long kickoff and a return.
Two plays later, Vick (10 rushes for a game-high 130 yards, 1 TD) had the first of three big fourth-quarter scrambles, running 35 yards, to the Giants’ 9 yard-line. Four plays after that, Vick ran left on a four-yard touchdown run that put Philadelphia back in the game, down 31-24, with 5:28 remaining.
The Giants then moved 27 yards and on the verge of field goal range, to the Eagles’ 38 yard-line. But, a false start penalty gave the Giants a 2nd-and-11, which became a 3rd-and-8 and a New York punt.
Three plays later, Vick, facing a 3rd-and-10 at the Eagles’ 12 yard-line, was forced out of the pocket, but ran left for a 33-yard gain to the Philadelphia 45 yard-line.
That play moved Vick over 100 yards rushing for the sixth time in his career, as he also singlehandedly outrushed the Giants, who were held to 100 rushing yards after running for at least 200 yards each of the previous two weeks.
Vick then threw over the middle to wide receiver Jason Avant (3 catches, 35 yards) for a 13-yard gain on the next play, and two plays later, he ran up the middle, to the Giants’ 20 yard-line.
Then came a 7-yard pass over the middle to Celek and a 13-yard touchdown pass to the left, to wide receiver (team-high 7 catches, 59 yards, 2 TD) Jeremy Maclin.
Just like that, three Philadelphia touchdowns in a span of just 6:12, and a new ballgame, tied at 31 apiece, with 1:16 left.
The Giants still had a chance to salvage the game as they got fairly good field position after a short kick to their 15 yard-line and 21-yard return by Danny Ware, to the New York 36 yard-line.
But, the Giants went three-and-out, as Manning threw two incompletions and was sacked.
That set the stage for the making of NFL history.
With fourteen seconds left, rookie punter Matt Dodge was instructed to punt the ball out of bounds, but a high snap suddenly changed his plans.
“[Dodge] was told to kick the ball out of bounds,” Giants’ head coach Tom Coughlin explained. “He got a high snap and didn’t feel he could, and we learn the hard way again.
“I’ve never been around anything like this in my life… it’s about as empty as you get to feel in this business,” added Coughlin, who immediately after Jackson’s score, came onto the middle of the field to challenge Dodge about not punting the ball out of bounds.
Initially, the play looked harmless, as Jackson fumbled the ball at the Eagles’ 35-yard line.
He quickly picked the ball up off the Meadowlands turf however, backtracked to his own 30 yard-line, and then ran through traffic up the middle before breaking toward the right sideline. Once he beat a diving Dodge at the Eagles’ 47 yard-line, he was home free.
With time already expired, Jackson, who has showboated in past games (once, leaving the ball short of the goal line, costing himself a score), was either trying to make sure the Giants had no time left, or more likely, taunting them.
Either way, he ran parallel to the goal line before finishing his NFL record fourth punt return for a touchdown this season, while becoming the first NFL player to win a game with a punt return on the game’s final play.
The ensuing extra-point was a franchise record 28th in the fourth quarter for the Eagles, as the Giants became the first team to lose a lead of at least 21 points in the fourth period since New York did the same thing in a loss at Tennessee, in 2006.
The ease with which the Eagles scored the final four times they touched the ball was remarkable.
Philadelphia went 75 yards, on just two plays, in 41 seconds; then, 56 yards, on five plays, in only 1:59; then, 88 yards, on eight plays, in just 1:45; before the punt return by Jackson.
It was all shocking enough to question how the Giants will respond, with their playoff destiny still within their control over the regular season’s final two weeks.
Walking off the field, frustrated and dejected team captain, center Shaun O’Hara, who returned to the lineup on Sunday after missing the previous six games with injury, called the ending “inexcusable and unexplainable.”
When asked by a reporter if the Giants could recover from such a startling loss, O’Hara candidly admitted, “I don’t know.”
Prior to the furious finish, the Giants were fortunate to be in the position of holding such a big lead midway through the final period, thanks to three earlier bad calls that all went their way.
New York probably should have punted on their first scoring drive, in the opening quarter. Television replays showed that a 3rd-and-11 pass from the Giants’ 28 yard-line, to wide receiver Hakeem Nicks (6 catches, 63 yards, 1 TD), hit the ground as Nicks slid to haul it in.
Philadelphia didn’t challenge however, and six plays later, Manning threw a 35-yard touchdown pass to wide receiver Mario Manningham (8 catches for 113 yards, both game highs, plus 2 TD), who got behind the Eagles’ blitzing defense for an easy touchdown that put the Giants ahead, 7-0.
Later, with the Giants ahead, 17-3, after second-quarter field goals sandwiched a 33-touchdown pass from Manning to Manngham, New York took advantage of a second break.
Replays showed Maclin juggling a ball that should have been ruled an incomplete pass. Instead, the play was called a fumble at the Eagles’ 30 yard-line, which safety Kenny Phillips scooped up and returned to the Philadelphia 8 yard-line.
Manning threw a touchdown pass to Nicks on the next play, to extend New York’s lead to 24-3, with five seconds left in the first half.
Before that, the Eagles had finally scored their first touchdown late in the third quarter, with some help from the Giants.
With five minutes left in the period, Philadelphia recovered a ball that was left the ball on the ground by Manningham as he was going out of bounds on the left sideline.
That gave Philadelphia a short field at the New York 25 yard-line. Vick rushed for 13 yards on the next play, and two plays later, threw to the right, to a wide open Maclin, who strolled into the end zone untouched, to bring the Eagles to within 24-10, with 3:56 left in the quarter.
The Giants though, scored again, off of a third lucky break, which was reminiscent of a play that cost New York in its other loss to the Eagles this season, in Philadelphia, when Manning (in that game), fumbled while diving head-first to the ground.
Jackson gained 31 yards on a pass from Vick and like Manning in the teams’ last meeting, made a head first-dive to avoid a hit. He fumbled, and Phillips recovered at the 50 yard-line. Replays showed that linebacker Jonathan Goff clearly touched Jackson on the back with his right hand as Jackson fell to the ground.
Jackson should have been down and the Eagles should have retained possession at midfield with 12:34 left in the final quarter, trailing by two touchdowns.
But, Eagles’ head coach Andy Reid put the red challenge flag back in his pocket, and seven plays later, the Giants scored on an 8-yard touchdown pass from Manning to tight end Kevin Boss (3 catches, 59 yards, 1 TD).
At that point, the Giants appeared to be on their way toward being in control of the chance to earn their fourth NFC East title since 2000. But instead, their epic fourth-quarter failure gives the Eagles an even better chance to secure their own sixth division title over that time.
In recent NFL memory, only last week’s collapse of Minnesota’s Metrodome roof overshadowed that of the Giants’ collapse on Sunday.
Philadelphia, winners of three straight games, finishes the regular season with home games against two losing teams (Minnesota and Dallas), while holding the division tiebreaker over the Giants by virtue of a head-to-head season sweep.
On November 19, 1978, it was also Philadelphia which beat New York at the old Giants Stadium, in what became known as the “Miracle at the Meadowlands,” when the Giants needed to simply take a knee to secure a win in the final seconds, but instead, fumbled a handoff, which the Eagles returned for a 19-17 victory.
As shocking at that was, it didn’t cost the Giants much as it was merely their fourth loss of a six-game losing streak during a 6-10 season.
This Eagles’ miracle however, might have meant the difference between good positioning to reach Super Bowl XLIV, and possibly missing the playoffs.
Despite that realization, Giants’ defensive end Justin Tuck remained positive, saying “We’re not dead… we still got a great opportunity to make the playoffs, and once you get there, you never know.”
Manning agreed, saying “It’s unbelievable… it’s just kind of… how did that happen?” But, he added, “We got a shot. Sometimes, that’s all you want, and we [still have] a shot to get in [to the playoffs].”
Tuck and Manning speak from experience when it comes to that, as each played an integral role in the Giants’ magical run from a fifth-seeded wild-card entry to Super Bowl XLII champion.
They both played in and lost the Giants’ final four home games in November and December, of 2007, including a bad home loss to Washington that dropped New York’s record to the same 9-5 it is now.
Back then, there was the same talk that there suddenly is now about the Giants’ jeopardy for reaching the playoffs.
New York, which finished 5-3 at home and which had a three-game winning streak stopped, will desperately need positive leaders like Tuck and Manning to shake off Sunday’s stinging loss, as the Giants travel to Green Bay (8-6) to play the Packers next Sunday at 4:15 on ET, in a game that could ultimately decide the sixth and final NFC playoff spot.