- Ohm Youngmisuk, ESPN Staff Writer
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EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. -- Antrel Rolle sat in a nearly empty locker room, slouched on his stool and scratching his head.
With his head down, the safety kept searching for answers -- and there simply were none. The New York Giants had suffered a collapse for the ages, the kind that can cripple a team's confidence and have fans calling for Bill Cowher.
Tom Coughlin won't lose his job unless the team suffers a complete meltdown and quits in the final two weeks. But on Sunday afternoon, he certainly was out of answers following a stunning 38-31 loss to the Philadelphia Eagles.
"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."
For the second straight year, the Giants sent fans to the exits after the home regular-season finale, looking for the first trash can to puke into. But unlike last year's 41-9 no-show against the Panthers, the Giants played their hearts out, only to have them ripped out by Michael Vick and the Eagles -- kind of like how a Predator yanks the spinal cord out of its victim in the movies.
Playing inspired and dominant football, the Giants built a 24-3 halftime lead and led 31-10 with 8:17 remaining. They were eight minutes away from their biggest win of the year and they could taste the NFC East title.
Instead, the Michael Vick experience went into full effect and it remains to be seen if the Giants will ever make a full recovery. The Eagles quarterback threw a 65-yard touchdown to Brent Celek, ran for 94 of his 130 yards -- including a 4-yard touchdown scamper -- and then hit Jeremy Maclin for a 13-yard touchdown to even the game at 31 with 1:16 remaining.
Vick left the New Meadowlands breathless in a matter of minutes. Then Giants killer DeSean Jackson took the life out of a stadium that had hoped to party, ripping off a game-winning 65-yard punt return that was an absolute blur as time expired. All the Giants had needed to do was punt the ball out of bounds, maybe make one stop and get ready for overtime.
"Words can't explain it," Eagles linebacker Jamar Chaney said in the jubilant winning locker room. "You can't even write a movie like that."
The Giants had seen this movie ending too many times when it comes to the Eagles, who won their sixth straight over their NFC East rival.
But even M. Night Shyamalan couldn't have written a more unexpected and stunning twist of an ending.
Coughlin had stood by punter Matt Dodge all season and the rookie committed the one mistake that cost the Giants in the worst way. Instructed to punt out of bounds, Dodge tried -- and the kick ended up sailing well in bounds, toward Jackson.
Jackson muffed the punt, only to avoid three tackles on his way into the end zone with no time left. According to the Elias Sports Bureau, 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.
"It is devastating right now and it should be," defensive end Justin Tuck said. "We let one slip out of our hands. Obviously have an opportunity to basically seal up the NFC East today, had it, and lost it. But I know that team. We will bounce back and be ready to play next week and move forward."
The Giants (9-5) have all but lost the NFC East to the Eagles (10-4), but their playoff hopes are still very much alive for a wild card. Next week's game is now the game of the year. The Giants pretty much must beat the Packers in Green Bay on the day after Christmas to make the playoffs.
The big mystery now is whether the Giants can rebound from this utter disaster.
"You know what? What doesn't kill you, makes you stronger," Tuck said. "We are not dead."
It certainly felt like a morgue in the Giants' locker room after the loss. Several players bolted nearly as fast as Jackson did on the punt return.
Defensive tackle Barry Cofield wondered what many who watched the game were thinking afterward.
How will the Giants respond and rebound from blowing a 21-point lead to their chief rival in eight minutes with the NFC East on the line?
"I don't know," Cofield responded. "We will have to see. I have never had to deal with anything like this.
"The proper reaction? I don't think anyone knows. We will try to come together as a team and put it behind us and move on. ... We will see if we are capable of that. It will show next Sunday. We will show up like a team that has moved on or we will show up like a beaten team."
The Giants did get a break when Green Bay (8-6) and Tampa Bay (8-6) both lost. Green Bay's loss ensured that the Giants cannot be eliminated from playoff contention before the final week of the season.
The Saints (10-4), who lead the Giants by one game, are probably going to lock down one wild card.
None of this seemed to matter when the Giants were punishing Vick and the Eagles early on. They outgained Philadelphia 222-74 in total offense in the first half and Vick looked completely ineffective, passing for only 33 yards and rushing for 23 yards by halftime.
"Everybody came in at halftime. ... We were looking like sad puppies," Eagles cornerback Asante Samuel said.
The Giants sacked Vick three times and hit him 11 times for the game. But when it mattered most, they lost sight of Vick. In fact, they couldn't seem to do anything right.
On the Celek touchdown, Tuck dropped back into coverage and Vick hit Celek on a pass over Tuck. Safety Kenny Phillips came up trying to make a play on the ball but whiffed and Celek was off to the end zone.
The Eagles then recovered what might have been the easiest onside kick ever as the Giants started retreating for a kickoff, even though Coughlin said the coverage team was instructed to brace for an onside kick.
Vick ran for a gain of 35 yards and the defensive collapse was well under way. He would add runs of 33 and 22 yards.
"We kind of got into a prevent defense early in the fourth quarter and kind of bend but don't break," Tuck said. "Obviously him being the athlete he is, he made something out of it."
"He got my vote for MVP," Tuck added. "He really showed up in the fourth quarter."
And the Giants disappeared like a piece of trash floating in the swirling wind around the stadium parking lot.
"There is no way we should have lost today," Rolle said. "There is no way to really explain it. It hurts. One of the worst losses I have ever experienced."