EAST RUTHERFORD, NJ - Tom Coughlin has been a football coach for 42 years, but neither he nor his players had ever experienced the kind of crushing defeat they endured Sunday in New Meadowlands Stadium.
The Giants owned a 31-10 lead midway through the fourth quarter before Philadelphia scored 28 points in the final 7:28, including DeSean Jackson's 65-yard game-winning punt return on the game's final play that gave the Eagles a 38-31 victory. Jackson is the first player in NFL history to score a game-winning touchdown on a punt return on the final play of the fourth quarter.
"I've never been around anything like this in my life," Coughlin said. "It's about as empty as you get to feel in this business, right there."
The outcome likely decided the NFC East title. Philadelphia improved to 10-4 and moved a game ahead of the 9-5 Giants. The Eagles also own the tiebreaker by virtue of their two victories this season over the Giants. They have won six consecutive games against the Giants, including five in the regular season.
In the postgame locker room, the Giants were unanimous in saying they had never endured anything like this defeat.
"I've never been through anything worse than this one," running back Brandon Jacobs said. "It's hard to put a loss like this behind you. You keep thinking about something like this forever. We had so much on the line, but it's a sport and it happens. You have to bounce back."
"You work hard in practice and meet hours upon hours to win games so when you lose a game in that fashion, it's obviously very much devastating," safety Antrel Rolle said. "You don't want to lose, period. When you lose like that, obviously it hurts more."
"I don't think there are enough words in the dictionary right now to describe how bad we all feel," said center Shaun O'Hara, who returned to action after missing six games with a sprained foot. "But really, we have nobody to blame but ourselves. We played an outstanding first half and gave it away in the second half."
The Eagles tied the game on Michael Vick's 13-yard touchdown pass to Jeremy Maclin with 1:16 remaining. The Giants had all their timeouts remaining and a chance to win the game, but after two incomplete passes and Darryl Tapp's seven-yard sack of Eli Manning, the Giants called timeout with 14 seconds remaining.
They used the time to instruct rookie punter Matt Dodge to kick the ball out of bounds and away from Jackson, arguably the NFL's most dangerous return man. But Zak DeOssie's snap was high and Dodge hit a line drive that Jackson dropped and picked up before eluding a tackle attempt by Duke Calhoun and taking off toward the end zone.
"I'll take full responsibility for that last play." Coughlin said. "The young punter was told to punt it out of bounds and he got a high snap and didn't feel like he could and we all learned the hard way again. At that point in the game with (Jackson) back there, you don't punt into that."
Dodge took the blame for kicking to Jackson.
"I was definitely looking out of bounds the whole way," Dodge said. "I got the snap and tried to get it off quick. Not a good time to hit a line drive, that's for sure.
"I had plenty of time, just not executing good. There's nothing more you can say. You can't give the most explosive returner in the game a line drive in a situation like that."
The punt was the last in a series of mistakes and missed opportunities down the stretch that cost the Giants the game. After Vick's 65-yard touchdown pass to tight end Brent Celek cut the Giants' lead to 31-17, Philadelphia's Riley Cooper recovered a David Akers onside kick. That led to Vick's four-yard touchdown run that made it 31-24.
"We talked about the onside kick as a possibility," Coughlin said. "We didn't put our hands team in there, no. There were still seven and a half minutes to go and they were down two scores, so we didn't think it was necessary to do that at that time. There was no reason for us not to make a better play on the ball. We didn't have anybody even around the ball."
On their next possession, the Giants were on the periphery of field goal range when David Diehl's false start penalty pushed them back five yards. Three plays later, they punted.
The Eagles took possession at their own 12-yard line with 3:01 remaining and no timeouts. But Vick scrambled for 33 yards up the left side and 22 yards down the middle before throwing the touchdown pass to Maclin, who caught the ball at the five, then faked his way past Terrell Thomas and into the end zone for the tying touchdown. Vick rushed for 130 yards, the most ever by a quarterback against the Giants.
"He has my vote for MVP," defensive end Justin Tuck said. "He really showed up in the fourth quarter; more with his legs than earlier in the game. He made plays, we didn't. I give those guys a lot of credit, they stuck in there, it was 31-10 in the fourth quarter. To be able to come back like that, it showed a lot of heart, it showed a lot of guts from them. Anytime you're in a situation like that, our defense has to step up and find a way to get a stop there and we weren't able to."
The Giants' collapse wasted a fine game by Manning, who tied a career-high with four touchdown passes – two to Mario Manningham (his first career two-touchdown game) and one apiece to Hakeem Nicks and Kevin Boss. But like everyone else, Manning was thinking about the end of the game and not the scores that gave the Giants their lead.
"Just shock," Manning said of the outcome. "Just unbelievable. Just kind of how did that happen? You are kind of feeling good right there, you score a touchdown, you are up 21 in the fourth quarter, feeling pretty good about your situation, where you are and then all of a sudden just everything went downhill. Everything that could probably go wrong went wrong and you can't have that. That is why you play 60 minutes of football. We played a good 52 minutes and the eight other minutes we gave it to them. It wasn't like they went out and just dominated us, we gave them the victory."
Manning's fourth scoring pass of the game, an eight-yarder to Boss, extended the Giants' lead to 31-10. The Giants took possession when safety Kenny Phillips recovered Jackson's fumble at the Eagle's 47-yard line. It was Phillips' second recovery of the game. Replays showed that Jackson was touched by Jonathan Goff as he went to the ground, but Coach Andy Reid did not challenge the call.
On the second play of the drive, Manning and Boss connected for a 15-yard gain to the 27. Brandon Jacobs ran for 11 yards and an encroachment penalty on the Eagles helped move the Giants to the Philly eight-yard line. On third-and-four, Boss got open in the back center of the end zone and Manning hit him for the touchdown.
But the Eagles scored just 49 seconds later to start their improbable comeback. Philadelphia needed only two plays to cover 75 yards, the second a Vick pass that he lofted down the center of the field for Celek that sailed just over the outstretched hand of Tuck, who had dropped into coverage.
Philadelphia scored the only touchdown of the third quarter. Vick's eight-yard scoring pass to Maclin pulled the Eagles to within 24-10 with 3:56 remaining in the period. On second down, Vick had time to survey the field until he found Maclin crossing from left to right just short of the goal line without a Giants defender near him.
Philadelphia needed to travel only 25 yards after defensive tackle Mike Patterson recovered Manningham's fumble on the left sideline. Vick ran for 13 yards and threw a four-yard pass to Jason Avant before the touchdown.
The Giants scored 17 points in the second quarter, including 10 in the final 48 seconds, to take a 24-3 halftime lead.
Lawrence Tynes' 25-yard field goal increased the Giants' lead to 17-3. On the second play of Philadelphia's ensuing possession, Thomas forced a fumble by Maclin after a 13-yard completion. Phillips scooped up the ball and returned it 22 yards to the Eagles' eight-yard line with just nine seconds remaining in the half (the turnover survived a booth review).
That was more than enough time for the Giants. On their first play, Manning stepped back and fired a pass to the left front of the end zone for Nicks, who got a step on cornerback Dimitri Patterson. The touchdown gave the Giants a 17-point lead five seconds before halftime.
Akers' 34-yard field goal less than two minutes into the second quarter cut the Giants' lead to 7-3.
Philadelphia gained possession when Manning's pass for Derek Hagan was tipped at the line by Tapp and intercepted by Quintin Mikell at the Giants' 45-yard line. Vick scrambled for 11 yards on first down, but the drive stalled and Akers came on to kick the field goal.
The Giants responded immediately with an eight-play, 73-yard march that ended with the second Manning-to-Manningham touchdown, this one highlighted by the receivers' outstanding effort. On first down from the Philadelphia 33-yard line, Manningham caught Manning's pass at the 20. He sidestepped Dimitri Patterson's attempted tackle at the 20 before faking out Mikell at the five with an outside-in move.
Later in the quarter, the Giants moved from their own 38 to the Philadelphia seven-yard line. The big plays were a 16-yard pass to Hagan on third-and-eight and an 11-yarder to Ahmad Bradshaw on third-and-six. But the third time they faced third down in the series, Boss couldn't handle Manning's pass close to the goal line and Tynes came on to kick the field goal.
Manning's 35-yard touchdown pass to Manningham – the 150th of his career – was the only score in the first quarter.
On third-and-eight, Manningham lined up on the left side. As he ran down the field, he was hit at the 20-yard line by Dimitri Patterson, but kept running. Manningham caught the ball at the five-yard line and stepped into the end zone for the score. The Giants declined the illegal contact penalty on Patterson.
The Giants' nine-play, 71-yard drive began after a fortuitous play by Chase Blackburn, who fell on the ball after Will Blackmon muffed a punt.
The series began poorly when Bradshaw lost four yards on first down. But on third-and-11, Manning threw to Nicks on the right side for a 22-yard gain to the 50. The Giants soon converted a third-and-seven when Manningham somehow kept his feet inbounds while making a terrific catch at the Eagles' sideline. Manningham scored three plays later.