Ghosts of T.O.'s past band together to haunt NFC East
The ghosts of Terrell Owen's past -- the Eagles and Jeff Garcia -- have bonded together to form a scary sight for the Dallas Cowboys and the NFC East, writes John Clayton.
EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. -- Get ready for a Terrell Owens Christmas Carol. The ghosts of T.O.'s past are coming to possibly spoil the Cowboys' NFC East celebration.
If the Cowboys lose to the Eagles on Christmas Day, the NFC East lead falls into the hands of Philadelphia, the team that T.O. ripped apart last season.
This year's Eagles, though, have little in common with the T.O. Eagles. Faced with adversity, Philadelphia bonded together and that was never more evident than in the Eagles' 36-22 win over the Giants at Giants Stadium on Sunday.
"Last year we were a team divided; we weren't together at all," Eagles halfback Brian Westbrook said. "Early in the season, we didn't have a hope and a prayer. This year, when Donovan McNabb went down, we rallied around that. Now we have a hope. If we keep playing hard and doing the things the coaches ask us to do, we're going to be fine."
The Eagles, in fact, could be the Cowboys' worst nightmare. Garcia has won three in a row, completed 64.7 percent of his passes for an average of 205 passing yards a game and he has thrown seven touchdowns. Westbrook is healthy and crossed the 1,000-yard threshold for the first time in his career. The much maligned Eagles defense is getting back some of its swagger.
"We just keep fighting," linebacker Jeremiah Trotter said.
Following the Eagles' 45-21 loss to the Colts on Nov. 26, Trotter questioned the makeup of the defense. He thought the line was too lean, sarcastically joking he was as big as the defensive linemen. Blitzes were backfiring. The Eagles were 5-6 and facing perhaps the NFC's toughest closing schedule with a 36-year-old backup quarterback; everyone figured they had landed in the scrap heap.
But they beat the Panthers 27-24. They rallied to beat the Redskins 21-19. Sunday's up-and-down game against the Giants fit the profile of this scrappy team. This season, they have each others' backs. Last season, thanks to Owens' rants on McNabb, players were stabbing each other in the back.
A classic example of the feel-better Eagles came in the second half. Garcia drew a 15-yard taunting penalty with 10 minutes remaining the fourth quarter after a 10-yard scramble to the sideline. He spiked the ball in front of defenders and drew the flag. Two plays later, he threw an interception to Giants safety Will Demps, who returned it 29 yards and eventually set up a 1-yard touchdown run by Brandon Jacobs.
The defense stepped up to stop a two-point conversion, leaving the Giants with a 22-21 lead. Garcia drove the Eagles 80 yards in eight plays and hit Reggie Brown with a 19-yard touchdown pass. With the two-point conversion, the Eagles led 29-22.
Cornerback Sheldon Brown intercepted Eli Manning's next pass and returned it 19 yards for the touchdown that put the game out of reach at 36-22.
Thankful, Garcia came over as the game concluded and kissed Trotter's helmet.
"I'm glad I had a helmet on," Trotter joked.
Still, it's easy to see that these 8-6 Eagles are together as a team.
Garcia has been a key to the Eagles' recent success. It's helped him to have his former 49ers offensive coordinator, Marty Mornhinweg, as the Eagles' offensive coordinator. Andy Reid has let Mornhinweg do a lot of the play calling of late and Garcia has averaged 28 points a game during those starts.
"Jeff is a good player and he has some pretty good players around him," Mornhinweg said. "You play to a player's strengths, and we try to play to Jeff's strengths. He has many strengths. Typically, he's pretty accurate. He's a quick decision maker. He rarely takes a sack. He's very, very smart. He manages the game typically pretty good. He has great athleticism."
Like the Eagles, though, Garcia was given up for dead. He was a failure with the Browns and Detroit after Pro Bowl seasons with the 49ers. In retrospect, he probably shouldn't have left the 49ers, and he paid the price. T.O. trashed him as a player and a person. The Eagles signed him as a backup, but even he wondered if the thrill of playing was going to come back.
"I was starting to lose faith in football and having fun like I've had the past few weeks," Garcia said. "A year ago, I was not thinking this would happen again for me."
Garcia is having a blast and it shows on the field. He completed 19 of 28 passes for 237 yards and a touchdown on Sunday. What's interesting is under Garcia's leadership, Reid and Mornhinweg are calling a more balanced run-to-pass game instead of those 70 percent throwing games back when McNabb was healthy. Against the Giants, the Eagles called 30 runs and 30 passes. That has allowed Westbrook to take more of a role.
In fact, the normally quiet Westbrook has become a more outspoken leader since McNabb's injury. Last week against the Redskins, he pulled the offense together during a crucial series and told his teammates, "Let's put one together here." The team rallied around him.
"I'm just trying to encourage the guys and let them know that they are doing a good job," Westbrook said. "Those guys are leaving their hearts on the field, and I've got to give them that encouragement, but they're doing a great job. I've stepped up and spoken a little more just to let the guys know that they have my support and they've responded."
There has been a noticeable improvement in the defense even though it's giving up yards from 20-yard line to 20-yard line. Defensive coordinator Jim Johnson still calls an aggressive blitzing game. Against the Giants, for example, he estimated he blitzed about 30 percent of the downs, his normal rate.
As the game progressed, the pressure got to Eli Manning. While Manning was sacked just once, he was hit six times, hurried 10 other times and threw two interceptions. In all, the Giants had four turnovers.
"They tried to blitz us and they did a good job of getting to me," Manning said. "For the most part, we did a good job of blocking and we had some opportunities. We got into the red zone a few times and we were not able to score. That was a big factor in us not winning the game. We have to score touchdowns and we also had four turnovers. When you do things like that, it makes it a tough day to win."
Said Johnson, "Sometimes you are what you are. We weren't playing very good. We weren't consistent. Today we were consistent. After the first series, we did a good job against the run. We only gave up one big play."
The Giants made a point of trying to hit Plaxico Burress with long passes when the Eagles tried to blitz and it worked, to an extent. Burress caught six passes for 120 yards, but the Eagles made the key stops when needed.
By holding the Giants to two field goals on two red-zone series, the Eagles gave the offense the chance to win.
"We're to blame, there's nobody else," Burress said. "It's football. This happens, but at certain times, you can't let things like that happen that brings the team down. Basically, we couldn't take care of the football."
It still appears the Giants and the Eagles have the best chance to surface as the NFC wild cards. The Eagles, however, can take it one step further. If they can beat the Cowboys and T.O. next week, the Eagles control their own NFC East title fate.
"It's not ironic at all," Westbrook said of the Christmas Day showdown. "We are going down there to face the Dallas Cowboys. T.O. is just one player on that team. For me, I'm not even thinking about T.O. I'm thinking about Marcus Spears and the other Cowboys."
This trip to Dallas, the Eagles will go as a team. Last season, T.O. killed that feeling. Now, the ghosts of T.O.'s past will come together with hopes of haunting their former tormentor.
John Clayton is a senior writer for ESPN.com.