The New York Giants are the best team in football, with a punishing defense and a balanced but explosive offense. However, they were dominated in Week 14 by a Philadelphia Eagles team that is a long shot to make the playoffs. The loss proves the Giants are not invincible, especially without Plaxico Burress, but even more than that, it shows what a wasted season the Eagles have had.
These two NFC East rivals have now split their two contests. Between the two games, the Eagles have outscored the Giants 51-50 and outgained them 631 yards to 612. Both teams committed two turnovers. Sunday's blocked field goal return for a touchdown gives the Giants a special-teams advantage, but it is pretty clear that after 120 minutes of football, the two teams are roughly equal.
Of course, the 11-2 Giants have the inside track on home-field advantage throughout the playoffs, while the Eagles are a mediocre 7-5-1. The record does not speak to the way that the Eagles have dominated their opposition this year. Philly has outgained its opponents by almost 1,000 yards, outscored them by 76 points and won the turnover battle, owning a positive differential. The Eagles' point differential is the second best in the NFC.
On Sunday, the Eagles showed that they too are a complete team with a quality offense and defense. In blustery conditions, the Eagles dominated the line of scrimmage and took advantage of the wind in the passing game. The Giants' passing game was stalled by the Eagles' aggressive man-to-man coverage, weather conditions, drops and an erratic Eli Manning. New York's league-best running attack was unable to carry the wayward passing attack, and the Giants only offensive score came against a fourth-quarter prevent defense.
The Giants had not missed Burress at all in his previous absences, but the opponent and the conditions posed a double whammy to the Giants' attack. The Eagles like to play man-to-man defense and bring pressure against both the quarterback and the running backs. Burress' ability to beat man coverage forced the Eagles to play with deep safeties and more zone coverage in the first game. This time around, the Eagles did not fear any active Giants receiver and pressured the line of scrimmage relentlessly. The Eagles' secondary is deep enough to cover the remaining Giants receivers one-on-one on a regular basis.
Even against the stacked box, the Giants managed to run the ball respectably. Their three-headed monster of Brandon Jacobs, Derrick Ward and Ahmad Bradshaw combined for 100 yards on 23 carries. Jacobs averaged more than five yards per carry, and his injury was a serious impairment for the Giants.
Somewhat counterintuitively, Manning had more trouble throwing with the wind at his back. After an efficient first quarter against the wind, Manning started the second quarter with a beautiful deep ball to Burress' replacement, Domenik Hixon, who dropped a potential big play. The rest of the quarter Manning completed one of eight passes for 13 yards. In the third quarter, the Giants again had the wind, and Manning threw incomplete on his only attempt.
The wind changed the way the Eagles played the game, and unlike the Giants, the change was to their benefit. McNabb only threw one ball that travelled 15 yards in the air. More importantly, the Eagles tried to manage the clock in the second half and committed to the run in a way Andy Reid rarely does. Leading 10-7 and playing against the wind, the Eagles staged two long, clock-eating drives. The first drive was 14 plays and featured a mix of short passes and runs, culminating in a blocked field goal attempt. The next drive, the Eagles ran on six consecutive plays before a few passes led to the game-clinching touchdown pass to Brian Westbrook.
Gaining confidence from their ability to run the ball, the Eagles played smashmouth football to run out the clock. The Eagles got the ball back with 9:26 left in the game. They proceeded to hand off to Westbrook on 11 of the drive's 13 plays, marching down for an insurance field goal. Westbrook was not dominant on these runs -- seven gained three yards or less -- but the dedication to the running game paid great dividends. The Eagles converted first downs and managed to run down the clock.
The Giants' defense's inability to get off the field may be the most troubling sign for them. The passing game will get back in sync, as the team adjusts to a post-Plaxico era, and the Eagles' cornerback depth and pass rush pose a threat few opponents can duplicate. The Eagles, however, outmuscled the Giants at the point of attack. Potential playoff opponents Carolina, Dallas, Atlanta and Minnesota can also run the ball effectively. The good news is that few teams combine the Eagles' offensive diversity with a top-flight defense. The Giants remain prohibitive favorites to return to the Super Bowl, but the Eagles showed that New York is not an unstoppable juggernaut.
For Philadelphia, this game may prove to be the highlight of a disappointing season. Had they merely beaten the Bengals, the Eagles would control their own playoff destiny. Instead, not only will they have to win out to make a wild card -- a difficult proposition with Washington and Dallas on the schedule -- but they also have to hope Atlanta falters as well. The midseason meltdown in Cincinnati and Baltimore appears to be in the past, and this team has re-established itself as one of the best in football.
Unfortunately, style points, fancy statistics and a boatload of what-ifs are not factors in considering which teams qualify for the playoffs. Instead, the NFL uses something as simple as wins, and the Eagles, despite their impressive run, have failed to close the deal too many times to deserve a playoff spot.
Ned Macey is an analyst for Football Outsiders.