Thursday, December 15, 2005

Week 14: Giants 26 - Eagles 23

This was supposed to be the easy part for the Giants, a breather of a game against one of the NFL’s derelicts, an opportunity to collect themselves after an intense couple of games against two of their stronger conference rivals. The Giants hoped that their game against the Eagles would amount to nothing more than a quick, efficient business-trip: Head down the turnpike, do what we have to do, and be home by midnight with wifey and the kid. After all, they were facing a Philadelphia team that was a far cry from the championship caliber team that had tormented the Giants for the past few seasons. These Eagles slumped into today’s action as losers of five of their last six games, most ignominiously this past Monday night in a 42-0 drubbing at the hands of the Seahawks, an undressing that was witnessed not only by the mortified Philly Phaithful but also a national television audience on “Monday Night Football.” After the game came more dissention in a Philadelphia locker room that has housed its share of bitterness this year, when linebacker Jeremiah Trotter accused his teammates of quitting on the season, surely the most damning accusation in all of sports these days. He caught a lot of flack for his bluntness, but the 42-0 score spoke louder than the his teammates' indignant rebuttals.

It is remarkable how quickly a team can lose its elite status accompanying aura of intimidation in today’s NFL. To illustrate this, let’s look back not even a decade ago at the Dallas Cowboys in the waning years of their run of excellence, when the same guys who wore the same uniform were no longer winning the same Super Bowls. While Troy Aikman (commentating today’s telecast for Fox) might have had suffered one too many concussions, while Emmit Smith had entered that all-too-identifiable decline phase of a running back’s career, and while the defense had lost its physical edge, the Cowboys remained a feared opponent, and Texas Stadium an enduringly intimidating place. Not so with the 2005 Eagles, and their soulless neo-cookie cutter of a venue, Lincoln Financial Field. This team is a vanquished bunch, ravaged by injuries and exhausted by a season of worst-case scenarios. Today they are on their death bed; if the Giants win, they are mathematically eliminated from defending their NFC crown. The fans still fill out the stadium, but listlessly so.

***

The obligatory music, the usual implorations to the crowd by the special teamers, and a half-assed crescendo usher in David Akers’ kickoff, and we’re underway. The Giants offense, a unit that has struggled of late to match the fire-power that it displayed at the beginning of the season, trots out to take the field. During their first four games, the Giants rolled up a league high 34 points per game, and boasted a DVOA – and advanced metric that breaks down every play of the season that takes situation and opponent into account, developed by the smart folks at footballoutsiders.com, and discussed in brief in my post here – of 35.2%, good for fourth best in the league. But since then, while they’re not exactly sputtering, they have slowed down considerably, and come into this game on the heels of a grinding struggle against the Cowboys in which the offense only managed ten points; their DVOA has fallen to 7.3%, still good enough for eleventh in the league, but far from their earlier high-poweredness. No small portion of the blame for this flagging offense can be placed on the spotty play of quarterback Eli Manning, who has seen his quarterback rating fade from 97.4 after week 4 to 78.9 going into this game -- certainly not bad for the second year pro, but far from the instant superstardom that he had seemingly already achieved in the season’s early going. And he is coming off his worst game of the year, a 12/31, 2 interception stinker against the Cowboys, in which he struggled with his accuracy, his touch, and perhaps most worrisome, his decisions.

The Eagles defense, while not the elite unit that consistently carried them to the top of the NFC, is still fairly decent, coming into the game with a DVOA of -7.9%, ranking a solid eleventh in the league. As ugly as the 42-0 pasting by the Seahawks might appear upon first blush, it was much more the fault of the offense than the defense, who only gave up 194 yards.

But the Giants offense comes out sharp on their opening drive, marching down the field with a precision that had been absent the week before, seemingly confirming the Eagles fans’ suspicion that their team has phoned it in. Eli Manning completes three of three 3rd down attempts on this drive, including a lofting 28 yard toss to a wide open Jeremy Shockey that takes the Giants deep into Eagles territory. A few plays later, on 2nd and Goal from the 4, Eli gets flushed from the pocket before dumping one off to safety-valve Tiki Barber, who turns and charges into a goal-line confrontation with strong safety Brian Dawkins. Dawkins rebuffs Tiki initially, but Shaun O'Hara hustles from behind and throws his 315 lbs into the equation, driving the Tiki-Dawkins stalemate across the plane and staking the Giants to an opening drive touchdown.

Already in a hole, these Eagle fans have little reason for optimism as their makeshift offense takes the field. At the beginning of this year, this offense had expectations of continuing their residence among the league’s best, but the loss of their superstar quarterback-receiver tandem, Donovan McNabb and Terrell Owens, compounded by the more recent loss of the dangerous running back Brian Westbrook, has left the Eagles offense in shambles. Last week, quarterback Mike McMahon, McNabb’s erratic replacement, threw three interceptions in the first half, two of which were returned for scores en route to a second half benching. By default McMahon gets the call again today, alongside a collection of no-names at the skilled positions.

But on the Eagles second play, McMahon completes a deep seam to tight end LJ Smith, one of the few familiar faces from the glory years of less than 365 days ago. And two plays later, rookie running back Ryan Moats – a player known only to Eagles fans and hard core fantasy football players – bounces his run to the outside, outruns the Giants pursuit to the corner, flies around the bend, and sprung by a devastating block by fullback Josh Parry, scampers all the way down the sideline for a 40 yard Eagle touchdown. A wake-up call, and the crowd springs to life.

But the Giants offense came to play today, and they come out frisky on the next series, getting all the way down into Eagle territory on the strength of a big pass interference penalty and a questionable roughing the passer call. But on 3rd and 8 from the 20, the Giants get whistled for a false start by Bob Whitfield, an old, grizzled veteran who has seen better days and has, unfortunately, replaced Luke Petitgout at the all-important left tackle position after Petitgout went out with back spasms. On the next play, a devastating thirteen yard sack backs the Giants all the way to the 38 and out of field goal range, and Jeff Feagles comes on to punt it away as the Giants squander a chance for points.

The news gets worse for the Giants on the next play: Antonio Pierce, the middle linebacker who has been, in Michael Strahan’s words, the “heart and soul” of the improved defense, suffers a nasty ankle injury when he gets awkwardly twisted undern a pile. He winces on the ground, and is later carted off the field. But even without Pierce, the Giants are able to knuckle down and stop the Eagles, and they re-assume possession close to midfield. From this point they go back to work, led by some crisp Eli Manning throws and a fabulous run by Tiki Barber, who deftly follows a Dave Diehl pull to burst into the secondary, and then makes a bounding cut to the outside to spring himself all the way down to the 1. But just as they did three weeks ago against the Eagles, the Giants fail to punch it in on their first three tries, bringing up a 4th and goal from the 1 and the Eagles fans to their feet. The suspense of the pivotal play builds as Eli calls out the cadence. He takes the snap and sneaks through a tiny crease, barely ducking under the guided missle who is the vaulting Eagle linebacker Jeremiah Trotter, and falls forward into the endzone for the touchdown. 14-7 Giants.

An Eagle three-and-out gives the ball back to the Giants, and after a 27 yard catch by Plaxico Burress – putting him over 1,000 yards on the year – and a 3rd down reception by Tiki Barber, the Giants find themselves at 1st and goal from the 7, on the doorstep of a commanding lead. But another penalty by the creaky, rusty Bob Whitfield sets them back ten yards and torpedoes their chance at a touchdown. Jay Feely is called on to knock in a 24-yard field goal, and even the shaky kicker is okay to hit the chip shot. With five minutes remaining in the half, the Giants are off to a nice 17-7 lead.

But just when it seems that the Eagles are ready to be put to bed, they answer with a few quick plays that get them inside the Giants twenty, and then Ryan Moats dashes another handoff around the outside and up the sideline, shaking off a Brett Alexander tackle as he pounces into the endzone for his second exhilarating touchdown run of the day, cutting the Giants lead to 3. The Eagle strikes have been really quick; given the amount of time that the Giants have had the ball, it seems odd that the game is as close as it is. But this patchwork squad has proven game, and the Philly crowd is beginning to smell an upset.

Clearly, this wasn’t the easy game the Giants had wished for, and things get worse when starting right tackle Kareem McKenzie goes down with what appears to be a serious hamstring injury, pushing the total to four major injuries on the day: Petitgout, Pierce, McKenzie, and also William Joseph, who injured his leg in his first game back from an elbow injury that had kept him out of the previous three games. The Giants have been blessed with good health all season, but this game has brought an avalanche of misfortune. Because they are missing both offensive tackles, the Giants have to some mixing and matching on the line, moving left guard Dave Diehl to right tackle, plucking Jason Whittle off the bench to play Diehl's vacated left guard spot, while sticking Old Bob Whitfield at left tackle. On defense, Nick Griesen, who had excelled as the weakside linebacker, moves to the middle to replace Pierce, with Reggie Torbor coming in to replace Griesen at the weakside spot. Thankfully, the Giants relative health has left them with solid depth, but a season’s long worth of good luck has ended abruptly.

The effect of the injuries is clear on the Giants next posession, as Jason Whittle, rusty from disuse, commits two penalties on the Giants next possession that contribute to a quick Giants punt, which is darted back by Reno Mahe all the way to midfield. The Eagles offense, led by the plucky McMahon, eagerly jumps out there, and three quick plays to the scatty Mahe yield 27 yards and take the ball down to the Giants 24, decently sure field goal range for the stellar Dave Akers. On the next play, the Giants catch a potential break when LJ Smith gets called for an offensive pass interference penalty, but Coach Coughlin inexplicably declines the penalty -- which would have pushed the Eagles back 10 yards and into much more uncertain Akers terrain at the 34 -- instead choosing to stick the Eagles with 4th down, but an extremely makeable 42 yard field goal for the excellent Akers. Akers drills the kick with ease, and going into the half, the Eagles have battled all the way back to a 17-17 tie.


***

Perhaps just as surprising as the fact that the Eagles are still in this game is that it’s their offense, at the expense of a suddenly vulnerable Giants defense, that is responsible. The Eagles have put up 212 yards, including 122 rushing yards against a Giants defense that came into the game averaging an excellent 3.6 yards allowed per carry. The Giants offense looks excellent too in accumulating 247 yards, their skilled players running free in the secondary and for big chunks of yardage. But every time that they appear on the verge of taking control of the game, the Eagles are able to answer with points of their own.

As Jay Feely’s kick ushers in the second half, it is clear that the Giants are in for a much tougher fight than they anticipated. The Eagles pick up where they left off and drive down to the Giants 23, but a penalty and a sack push them back and force a 50 yard David Akers field goal attempt. Akers has been the consensus best kicker in the league for the past few years, and he thumps this one pretty good and pretty straight, but it doinks off the crossbar, no good, and the Giants resume possession.

As they have been able to do all day long, the Giants move the ball effectively on this drive, converting two 3rd and longs – Eli Manning has gone 8 for 9 on 3rd down thus far, Troy Aikman informs us -- that give them a 1st and goal at the 2 yard line. But the Giants recent read zone ineptitude rears its ugly head once again, as they manage to lose a yard over the next three plays. Jay Feely comes on and knocks in a 21 yarder, giving the Giants a three point lead that should have been more. Their next drive brings them back into the red zone, but they squander yet another opportunity, forcing them to settle for yet another field goal, which pushes the lead to a very unsatisfying six points.

But as often happens when teams fail to maximize opportunities, the Eagles make them pay on the next drive, as rookie Corey Webster’s struggles continue when he passively allows a possible interception to be snared from his gut by receiver Reggie Brown for a big gain – yet another missed opportunity – and a few plays later, David Akers hammers home a 36 yarder, halving the lead just like that. With 10:32 remaining in the game, the Eagles just keep nipping at the Giants’ heels.

As the game approaches the home stretch, the Iggles fans have found their customary rowdiness, as Lincoln Financial Field comes alive with nothing-to-lose abandon as their defense takes the field. They erupt a few plays later when Eli Manning -- who has played pretty well up to this point -- makes a crucial mistake, overthrowing Jeremy Shockey for an interception by Eagles cornerback Sheldon Brown. The Eagles take possession around midfield, and a quick burst by Ryan Moats and then a McMahon toss to Bobby McMullen give them a 1st and ten at the Giants 34. The Giants defense is able to stiffen at this point, though, forcing David Akers to attempt a difficult 50 yard field goal, a yard longer than where he had missed in the third quarter. But this time, Akers’ kick has plenty of leg; he could have hit it from 60 yards out. Tie game, and Lincoln Financial is feeling it, with 1:56 remaining.

***

Despite Eli Manning’s inconsistency, he has displayed a champion’s poise in critical, late game situations that has endeared him to Giants fans, and perhaps more importantly, his teammates. It started in a week 6 loss to the Cowboys, when Eli, after struggling through his worst game of the year to that point, shook off the day’s malaise and led the Giants to a game tying touchdown. The very next week at the Meadowlands, Eli rung in his status as a clutch, New York athlete by beating the powerful Broncos on a dramatic, heart-stopping touchdown drive, sending the Meadowlands into a frenzy in what has been, but hopefully won’t ultiately be, the highlight of the 2005 season. Against the Vikings and Seahawks, Eli led his team to desperate last-gasp touchdowns and subsequent two-point conversions to keep his team’s chances alive, even though they wound up losing both games. For whatever rookie problems he’s having, or “growing pains,” as the current, ex-athlete talking head-lexicon would have it, whether it is mental fatigue or imperfect mechanics, a certain lucidity comes over him in these pivotal moments, a lucidity that lets New York fans all they need to know about their bonus baby: He’s a winner.

Everything seems to be going according to plan when Eli completes successive twelve yard and fourteen yard passes to Jeremy Shockey and Tim Carter, which bring the Giants across midfield to the Philadelphia 46. Two plays later, it is Shockey again who finds himself wide open in the secondary, roaming free, perfectly positioned in a soft spot of the zone for Eli to loft him a nice, easy ball for a big gain that will get the Giants into field goal range. But Eli, perhaps overanxious at the prospect of seeing a potentially game-winning play so thrillingly develop before him, puts way too much on his throw, sailing it way over Shockey’s head and into the chest of Eagles safety Michael Lewis for another untimely interception. A good throw would have given the Giants a chance to win the game, but Eli’s second interception in three minutes has given the Eagles a reprieve, and we’re going to overtime in the cold Philadelphia night.

The third overtime of 2005; the Giants are 0-2 in their previous two attempts in the extra session, having lost both coin tosses, and their luck doesn’t look to be improving when Tiki Barber’s Tails call – last time he called Heads – proves wrong, giving the Eagles the first crack at a sudden-death win. Another bad break befalls the Giants when, after Mike McMahon finds Greg Lewis on 3rd and 8, the umpire’s generous spot gives the Eagles a questionable first down by half the length of a football. But the drive is snuffed out shortly after that, as the indominable Michael Strahan makes two big plays – including a sack on 3rd and 12, his eleventh and a half of the year – which force an Eagle punt.

On come Eli and the Giants for their turn. Again they are able to move the ball, and when Tiki Barber slithers for ten yards, crossing midfield and for a 1st down at the Philly 42, the Giants are once again a first down or so from victory. But two plays later on 3rd and 3, Eli throws one low to an open Jim Finn, who himself doesn’t make the most dexterous effort at catching the ball. This brings up 4th down from the 35 yard line, and Coach Coughlin a critical decision. Two weeks ago, confronted with almost exactly the same decision, Coughlin showed faith in Jay Feely, electing to send out his kicker, who, aside from an uncharacteristic miss a few minutes earlier at the end of regulation, had displayed a strong leg and good consistency all season long. Two weeks later, it is a much easier decision, but for all the wrong reasons; Coughlin doesn’t even entertain the thought of inserting the shaky Feely, deciding instead to go for it. But a ferocious Eagles blitz, a pre-2005 Eagles blitz, collapses the pocket on Eli Manning, forcing him to flail a half-deflected prayer that doesn’t even make the line of scrimmage before it is intercepted by Brian Dawkins, which turns out to be inconsequential because Dawkins is unable to generate any return. Another opportunity squandered, and Eagles ball again.

But the Eagles offense is beginning to show signs of fatigue, as the Giants have been able to apply some pretty consistent pressure, finally finding their groove at just the right time. Eagles tackle Artis Hicks’ holding penalty backs his offense into a 1st and 20, and after 1st and 2nd down yield zero yards, the Eagles are faced with a daunting 3rd and long. The Giants pass rush comes, and an improvising Mike McMahon uses his considerable athleticism to break the containment of the pocket, scrambling to the wing to buy himself and his receivers some time. But the Giants’ Carlos Emmons steps up to greet him from his linebacker position, forcing McMahon to halt his roll-out. He cocks his arm to wing one downfield, but before he can whip it forward, Osi Umenyiora comes crashing in from his blindside, stripping him of the ball and sending it skidding on the grass. Kenderick Allen of the Giants happens to be the closest man; he charges, pounces, and cradles, and the Giants take possession at the Philadelphia 27. After a rough first half, the defense has finished strong, and they trot off the field having positioned their team for a chance to win the game.

The Giants cannot get a first down on their ensuing set, but they do manage nine yards, setting Jay Feely up for what is, under normal circumstances, a relatively easy 36 yard field goal attempt. Nothing more about Feely needs to be said; it’s a pretty typical sports head-case situation, but it’s worth mentioning that the Lincoln Financial Field Jumbotron played a montage of Feely’s misses of the previous two weeks, backgrounded by music that Feely would later describe as “eerie.” After Andy Reid calls time to ice him, Feely lines up his kick. The snap is good, the spot is good, and Feely’s kick looks plenty good at first, but then it takes a drastic turn for the left upright. God only knows whether the ball will intersect the plane of the upright in front of the upright – another, possibly career crippling choke – or behind it – redemption. The ball sneaks itself in behind the upright, Feely points to the sky, and sixty large men in dirty white uniforms gratefully bound toward the smallest one of them. The Giants have escaped with a victory.

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