The Giants tasted first place for 15 seconds Sunday night, enough to get a few good chews. But then the Eagles delivered a body blow that essentially Heimliched the lead out of their mouths.
In a wacky game filled with wild swings of momentum, peculiar rulings, madcap calls and assorted other oddities, the Giants wound up losing to their NFC East rivals, 45-38, when a win would have given them first place in the division.
The loss essentially knocked the Giants (7-6) out of the division race, leaving them two games behind the 9-4 Eagles (who have swept them for a head-to-head tiebreaker) with three games to play. They remain a game behind the Cowboys (8-5) for the final NFC wild-card playoff spot.
"It's extremely frustrating," Osi Umenyiora said. "We just didn't come through today."
Despite a sloppy game on offense, defense and special teams to that point, the Giants took a 31-30 lead with 5:12 left in the third quarter when Eli Manning hit Domenik Hixon for a 61-yard touchdown pass. Hixon broke two tackles on the play.
It was their first lead in two games against the Eagles. But it did not last very long. On the very next play, Donovan McNabb hit a wide-open DeSean Jackson for a 60-yard touchdown pass as the Eagles took the lead for good at 37-31.
It was one of a series of big plays that doomed the Giants and the second time this year that the Eagles were able to wrestle the flow of the game from the Giants with a one-play touchdown drive from McNabb to Jackson.
"You get a team like that, big plays are the things we talked about coming into the game, and we didn't stop those," linebacker Michael Boley said. "They had them in some critical situations where we didn't make the play, and that's frustrating."
Added cornerback Corey Webster: "You have to know where their playmakers are at on the field at all times, and we didn't do a good job of that."
Jackson had 178 yards on six receptions, including the 60-yard TD, and also returned a punt 72 yards for a touchdown. Sheldon Brown returned a fumble by Brandon Jacobs 60 yards for a touchdown for Philadelphia's third big scoring play.
The Giants had two big plays of their own, touchdown passes of 68 yards to Hakeem Nicks and 61 yards to Hixon from Eli Manning, who passed for 391 yards and three TDs.
It wasn't a big play that ultimately beat the Giants but a series of short ones. Ahead 37-31, the Eagles cut out the funny business and embarked on a 12-play, 91-yard drive that lasted 7:24, never had a third down and ended with a 1-yard run by Leonard Weaver with 5:48 remaining. McNabb's two-point conversion pass gave the Eagles a 45-31 lead.
The Giants responded to that touchdown drive with a touchdown drive of their own - Manning threw a 4-yard scoring pass to Kevin Boss to close to 45-38 with 1:31 remaining - but an onside kick went out of bounds.
The Giants forced the Eagles to punt, but after getting the ball at their 5 with 28 seconds remaining, the Giants were out of tricks and out of time. After a 7-yard pass to Boss that brought the Giants' total yardage to 512, Manning fumbled while scrambling to make a play and the Eagles recovered, kneeling on the victory.
"It's definitely a tough one to swallow as a defensive player because this falls squarely on our shoulders," Mathias Kiwanuka said. "We did not get the job done. Your offense scores that many points, you want to reward them with a win. And they deserved it."
It was another beatdown by the Eagles, who scored 40 points in the first win over the Giants. That's 85 points in two games against a Giants defense that was supposed to be the strength, the soul of the team.
"It's ridiculous," Umenyiora said, "but we have to find a way to fix it."
Justin Tuck was more blunt, using an expletive to describe the defensive effort.
At one point late in the second quarter, first place in the NFC East was lying on the ground, just waiting for one of the Giants to pick it up. Umenyiora and Clint Sintim stood over it - practically kicked it aside - without so much as a glance. It was as worthless as a penny on a muddy street, not worth bending over for.
Had anyone wearing a blue shirt had the wherewithal to scoop it up, it might have completely changed the tenor of the game and might have sent the teams into halftime tied. Instead, the Eagles were given the ball on an unrecovered fumble after what later was described as an inadvertent whistle, and they scored on Michael Vick's 1-yard run with 10 seconds remaining in the half for a 30-17 lead.
Umenyiora, who appears to be good for one big play per game, came around from behind McNabb on a second-and-10 from the Eagles' 42. Umenyiora hit McNabb's arm as he was preparing to throw and the quarterback coughed it up. The ball floated in the air and Michael Boley nearly caught it before it hit the ground, a play that probably would have been a touchdown or at least left the Giants in good position to tie the score at 24.
But when Boley dropped the ball, everyone on the Giants assumed it was an incomplete pass. There apparently was an inadvertent whistle on the field as well. But the officials ultimately ruled that it was a fumble, that McNabb's arm was not going forward at the time the ball came out - and the freebie just stood there on the turf at the 32-yard line.
"I didn't hear a whistle," Umenyiora said. "I don't know why it wasn't recovered, it just wasn't."
Sintim said he "guessed" that he heard a whistle. "
"I had no idea what was going on," he said. "It didn't seem as though the play was still active. I'm guessing the whistle blew . . . I'd like to think I would have picked it up if I didn't hear the whistle."
The Giants even called a timeout, trying to get some kind of review from the booth (where reviews originate in the final two minutes of either half).
Ultimately, the officials gave up waiting for someone to pick up the ball and just set the ball at the place where the ball came to rest for the next play, a third-and-20 from the 32.
"I don't know why they didn't review it," Tom Coughlin said. "Evidently they thought it was a pass."
And yet it was ruled a fumble and the Eagles were docked the yardage for the sack.
"By that time,'' Coughlin said, "I had lost my argument."
Moments later, McNabb hit Jackson for a 44-yard pass to the Giants' 24 to get into field-goal range and then hit Brent Celek on a 23-yarder to get into touchdown range before Vick came in and scooted around the left side for the touchdown.
The unrecovered fumble was just one of the big miscues that haunted the Giants. But the Eagles also scored a "traditional" touchdown on their first possession when McNabb hit Celek with an 8-yarder to cap a 67-yard drive.
The mayhem continued into the second half when with the Giants trailing 30-24, Jonathan Goff intercepted a pass intended for Celek to give the Giants first-and-10 at the Eagles' 29. But a burst of athleticism by Manning came back to haunt him.
Scrambling for a first down, he tumbled to the ground and had the ball knocked from his grip at the 15, with the Eagles recovering at the 14. Manning did not slide feet-first, so although he was on the ground, he was not ruled down by contact. The Giants argued that Brodrick Bunkley had tugged Manning's jersey and swiped at his foot as he was running, forcing him down, but replays concluded that Manning took several steps after the contact and went down on his own accord.
"I did go headfirst. That is just something I have to be careful of," Manning said. "Either go feet-first or just take care of the ball."
Although Manning fumbled twice, he had one of his best passing games ever, completing 27 of 38 with no interceptions.
His first TD pass was the 68-yarder to Nicks, who had dropped two passes earlier in the drive.
"When I heard the play [after the first drop on a deep pass in which he was wide open], I was thinking, 'All right, let's make up for it,' " Nicks said. "Then the second one happened and I was thinking, 'Make up for that.' "
He did, catching the ball at the 45 and spinning out of a tackle by Quintin Mikell before racing for the end zone and making it 14-10 early in the second quarter.
The Eagles went ahead 17-10 on a 20-yard field goal by David Akers and jumped ahead 24-10 on Jackson's 72-yard punt return. He caught the ball at the 28, backpedaled a few steps to sucker Hixon in from his outside containment and then sprinted down the sideline. Punter Jeff Feagles had a chance to knock him out near midfield but whiffed.
"I had a shot at him," Feagles said. "Obviously, he's tough to bring down. I tried the best I could on the sideline there but I didn't get a chance to get my hands on him."
The Giants scored on a 3-yard run by Ahmad Bradshaw to make it 24-17 with 1:30 left in the half. But then the almost-fumble and the Eagles' subsequent drive put them back on their heels.
"We don't have things right right now," Tuck said. "This ship is rocky right now as far as us going out there and playing consistently."
Still, the Giants are not out of the playoff picture. In fact, considering the swoon in Dallas, they are in decent shape. They have games against the Redskins, Panthers and Vikings remaining; the Cowboys play the Saints, Redskins and Eagles.
"We still have a lot to play for and that's the way it is going to be," Coughlin said. "Obviously, each game is extremely important and we've got to get ourselves ready to go to Washington next Monday night."