EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. -- The New York Giants spent the better part of three quarters making Eagles quarterback Michael Vick look pedestrian. They battered him with a variety of blitzes as the Giants took what appeared to be a commanding 31-10 lead in the fourth quarter.

What happened next will be talked about by Eagles fans for years to come. And no matter how hard they try, the Giants won't be able to purge a stunning 38-31 loss from their memories. Anyone who says they saw this coming should be labeled a liar because nothing in Vick's game Sunday suggested he was about to slip on his cape midway through the fourth quarter.

The Eagles (10-4) now have sole possession of first place in the NFC East and the Giants (9-5) will have to rally to make the playoffs. All hope is not lost, but now's not a good time to convince Giants fans of that. When quarterback Eli Manning threw an 8-yard touchdown pass to tight end Kevin Boss with 8:17 left in the fourth quarter, the Giants held a 31-10 lead. New York defensive coordinator Perry Fewell had put together a brilliant game plan to confuse and frustrate Vick, but one play provided the Eagles a shred of hope.

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Vick found tight end Brent Celek racing down the seam and delivered a perfect pass over the outstretched arms of Giants defensive end Justin Tuck, who had dropped back in coverage. Celek seemed so surprised to be in the open field that he frantically changed directions several times for no apparent reason.

What happened next probably will be left out of the Tom Coughlin biography, if he chooses a generous author.

The Giants' coach said his players were warned about a potential onside kick, but apparently it wasn't enough of a concern to send out the hands team. And when the ageless David Akers induced a perfect hop, rookie wide receiver Riley Cooper caught the ball with no Giants player in sight. Replays showed that Giants reserve wide receiver Duke Calhoun didn't seem overly interested in making a play on the ball. The Eagles' sideline erupted and you could sense that something remarkable might happen.

"[Special teams coach] Bobby [April] did a great job with that," said Eagles coach Andy Reid, who was drenched in Gatorade by center Mike McGlynn during his postgame address to the players. "That was a surprise onside. In other words, we didn't have our hands people in there, you know our onside kick people in there."

Down the hall, Coughlin was defending his decision to stay with the normal personnel.

"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 the time," Coughlin said. "There was no reason for us not to make a better play on the ball. We didn't have anybody even around the ball."

Coughlin further explained that having the normal personnel in the game gave the Giants a chance for a better return. And if someone could remind me of the last time the Giants had a big kickoff return, perhaps that explanation would hold water.

Given new life, Vick simply took over the football game. On the second play after the onside kick, Vick scrambled up the middle for 35 yards to the Giants' 9-yard line. And on third-and-goal from the 4, Vick raced around the right side for a touchdown. Everyone in the stadium knew he was going to run the ball, but it didn't matter. Doubt had come to visit the Giants' sideline and a false start penalty helped kill what could've been a game-sealing drive.

The Eagles got the ball back on their 12-yard line with three minutes and no timeouts left, which was not an issue for Vick. On third-and-10, he scrambled to the left and then raced for 33 yards. I'm not sure if the Eagles were sending in passing plays at that point, because it was obvious he was destroying the Giants with his legs. Vick ran for 94 of his 130 yards in the fourth quarter, and he finally let one of his teammates get involved when he found Jeremy Maclin for a game-tying 13-yard touchdown pass.

Things were going so poorly for the Giants at that point that it would've been wise to cut their losses and head to overtime. Instead, they were forced to punt with 14 seconds showing on the clock. Coughlin said rookie Matt Dodge had been instructed to punt the ball out of bounds, but he instead sent a line drive toward DeSean Jackson, who had time to muff the ball before making the play of the season.

Jackson darted right and then benefited from a crushing block by wide receiver Jason Avant. Once Jackson slipped past Dodge, it was obvious that the game was over. As Jackson tends to do, he made an abrupt stop at the goal line and raced to his left in order to milk the clock. By that time, there was pandemonium on the Eagles' sideline.

"Get your butt in the end zone," is what Eagles safety Quintin Mikell remembers saying as Jackson put one last dagger in the Giants. Mikell, one of the veterans on this team, said he'd never seen his head coach this emotional after a game.

Asked if he can recall being so emotional after a win, Reid said, "You know, I can't name another one of these. This is a special one. I mean, this is exciting. This was exciting for you guys; it's a great day to be a Philadelphia writer."

Reid admitted that he "goofed" when he didn't challenge a Jackson fumble early in the fourth quarter. At the time, it looked like the play would end any hope of an Eagles comeback. But on a day when the Eagles scored 28 points to win a game in the fourth quarter, Reid's gaffe is only a footnote. Vick can erase a lot of mistakes.

"He just had this determined look on his face," said left guard Todd Herremans. "It's like he's saying, 'I'm about to win this game. If you want to help, you're more than welcome.'"

So the Eagles went along for the ride. 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.

[+] EnlargeAP Photo/Bill Kostroun
Head coach Tom Coughlin watched as the Giants fell apart against Michael Vick, DeSean Jackson and the Eagles on Sunday night.
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.

[+] EnlargeAP Photo/Burnett
Remember this play, Giants fans? Herm Edwards (left) and Joe Pisarcik were on a whole lot of minds during Big Blue's latest implosion vs. the Eagles.
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.

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"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.


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