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Eagles top Giants, capture NFC East

<P>PHILADELPHIA – As Jessie Armstead was leaving the visiting locker room Sunday evening he stopped for a brief word with Co-Owner Wellington Mara. As Mara started to congratulate Armstead for his usual non-stop, full-effort play, Armstead cut the boss off. "I'm sorry Mr. Mara," was all Armstead could say before continuing out the door.</P>

Around these parts, the Giants defense isn't the unit to be blamed and the group that hurts the club; they're the dependable bunch that almost always comes through in the clutch. Not Sunday. As a result, Philadelphia captured its first division title since 1988 with a 24-21 victory over the Giants in front of 65,885 fans at frigid Veterans Stadium.

"Any time you want to call yourself the head honcho, you have to deliver every time, it doesn't matter how many times," Armstead said of his defense. "I had my hand in something that could make the situation change. And I never failed like that. This wasn't like the Giants defense; we usually step up. "This is going to take a long time to get over."

That's because the Giants had the game won. For the third consecutive game, Kerry Collins led the offense down the field late in the fourth quarter to erase a deficit and put New York in the driver's seat. This time, however, he left too much time on the clock and New York's defense was helpless to stop Philly's retaliation. Ron Dayne's 16-yard touchdown run and Tiki Barber's two-point conversion with 2:43 to play gave the Giants a seven-point lead. That disappeared faster than a New York minute. Eagles QB Donovan McNabb engineered the game-tying 67-yard drive in 54 seconds.

New York's final offensive thrust – a three-and-out – was way too conservative, according to several players, enough so that Barber strongly considered sharing his unhappiness with the coaching staff. So the Eagles got the ball back, moved 54 yards in seven plays and got a 35-yard field goal from David Akers with seven seconds to play to forge the final margin of victory. Even then, the Giants weren't dead, as they almost pulled off a miraculous 80-yard pass-and-pitch play, but Ron Dixon was stopped six yards short of the game-winning TD, and New York headed home with a 7-8 record; having been officially eliminated from the playoffs.

"Our guys battled, we fought, we tried," Head Coach Jim Fassel said. "We played hard." They just didn't play good enough, especially with the lead. "We've always been pretty good protecting a lead," Fassel said. "I didn't think they'd score twice on us."

They did because of McNabb, whom they've usually kept under wraps in the past. The Philly signal-caller completed 21-of-39 passes for 270 yards, three TDs and one interception. And he was able to accomplish all that with Michael Strahan in his face all afternoon. Strahan recorded 3.5 sacks to move within one sack of breaking Mark Gastineau's record of 22 set in 1984.

 "How do you justify sacks when the team lost?" Strahan asked. "Does it really matter when you lost? No."

More importantly for McNabb, however, he killed the Giants on the ground, gaining 48 yards on only six carries. "The one thing we usually do best against them we failed at that today," Fassel said of containing McNabb. Additionally, Eagles WR James Thrash, who was limited at practice during the week due to an ankle injury, just destroyed the Giants to the tune of seven catches for 143 yards and a TD. Thrash personally ensured that rookie CB Will Allen would have a rough afternoon, beating him repeatedly as the game wore on. Interestingly, the Eagles chose to attack Allen, despite the fact the Giants had fellow rookie Will Peterson filling in for the injured Jason Sehorn. And the Birds did so with much success.

"He had a real long afternoon," one player said of Allen. "He's young though. He'll be back." Another defender who's going to have a tough time watching the game films is MLB Micheal Barrow. He was turned inside and out by Eagles TE Chad Lewis. Lewis caught seven passes for 74 yards and two TDs.

 "Barrow wasn't too good out there today," another player said. "He really got his [butt] kicked." So, in one season, New York has gone from the penthouse to the outhouse. "It's very difficult," Fassel said. "Coming off a successful season, it's always hard to repeat. But to not make the playoffs is disappointing."

To not show up ready to fight for the division crown was also disappointing. After the Giants started off with a three-and-out, Philly went to work. The Eagles showed the Giants what it's like to utilize a tight end. Lewis grabbed five passes for 53 yards on Philly's nine-play, 72-yard drive, including the five-yard TD that capped the march. Lewis wasted Barrow off the line of scrimmage and McNabb drilled it into him in the middle of the end zone. Earlier on the drive, Lewis slipped Armstead's tackle attempt and gained an additional 21 yards after a catch. The Eagles were on the move on their next possession.

That was until Strahan and Barrow took over. Strahan posted his 19th sack of the season, and it was a beauty. He pushed old friend Jon Runyan out of the way and cut inside him for an eight-yard sack of McNabb. On the next play, Barrow dogged up the middle and got to the elusive Eagles QB. He came in and forced a fumble, which Barrow recovered at the Eagles 48-yard line. Strahan was credited with a half-sack for helping to force the turnover. But Barber gave it right back. After a seven-yard run, Eagles DT Corey Simon stripped the ball and Eagles SS Damon Moore recovered.

Fortunately for New York, the Eagles failed to capitalize. Akers had his consecutive field goal streak snapped at 17 when his 43-yard attempt fell short of the crossbar. The Birds were threatening after McNabb hit WR Todd Pinkston for 14 yards to convert a third-and-eight and then Eagles RB Correll Buckhalter got around right end for a 23-yard gain. But Strahan got to McNabb again, tripping up the scrambling QB before he reached the line of scrimmage. Later in the quarter, the Giants had the Birds pinned, facing a third-and-12 from their own seven-yard line. But McNabb went deep to Pinkston, and the crafty receiver drew a pass interference flag on Allen.

While that play didn't directly lead to Philadelphia points, it significantly tilted the field position battle in Philly's favor. Strahan continued his assault on Runyan, posting a six-yard sack of McNabb late in the first half. He stood Runyan up and crashed down on the Eagles signal-caller, moving within one sack of the all-time record.

The Giants were having trouble moving the ball during the entire first half. So, Fassel and Payton dug into their bag of tricks and scored on a 60-yard trick play to tie the score. On New York's first offensive play of the second half, Collins pitched right to Barber, who took a couple steps before lateraling the ball back to Collins. Collins collected the ball and threw a strike to a wide-open Toomer, who caught the ball around the 20 and waltzed into the end zone.

 "We practiced that a lot this week," Barber said. "All Kerry kept saying was to get him the ball back high; make the throw high. I did and Amani had no one near him." After Big Blue held, Barber was injured on the subsequent punt return. Barber missed a few plays with a sprained left ankle, so New York inserted Dayne into the contest. He immediately ripped off a 30-yard gain right up the middle. Another Dayne run – for six yards – moved Big Blue into the dreaded red zone, where the drive stalled when Collins overthrew TE Dan Campbell in the end zone on third-and-goal from the seven. Morten Andersen knocked through a 25-yard field goal to give New York a 10-7 lead with 2:38 to play in the third stanza.

But the Birds bounced right back, scoring early in the fourth quarter to retake the lead. McNabb sent Thrash deep. He obliged, burning right by Allen down the left sideline. He collected McNabb's perfect pass at the 15-yard line and continued into the end zone to complete a 57-yard scoring play.

The Giants answered with a 32-yard Andersen field goal, but still trailed 14-13 with 8:44 to play. New York moved 58 yards in 12 plays. WR Joe Jurevicius chipped in with an 18-yard catch from a scrambling Collins. Then the Giants took over looking for their third consecutive game-winning march. It took 4:51, but Collins had the team in the end zone after a nine-play, 81-yard drive. The drive didn't start great, as Collins and Amani Toomer dropped the ball on an attempted end around. That play lost 10 yards, but New York got it right back and then some when Campbell made a diving grab for a 20-yard gain. Barber scampered for 23 yards behind a nice seal block from Campbell, and RT Luke Petitgout's kick-out. Three plays later, Dayne took it in for the final 16 yards. He followed LG Glenn Parker, cut upfield and never looked back. Barber snuck in on a sweep right for the two-point conversion that gave New York a 21-14 lead. But McNabb tied things up in a hurry.

Thrash beat Allen again for a 32-yard gain, and Lewis beat Barrow again for a seven-yard game-tying touchdown. The Giants' fateful final three-and-out included no passes of any considerable length, something that bothered several players since they pulled out their two previous contests with aggressive play-calling while running the two-minute offense. That gave Philly one more chance – and they took advantage. Thrash beat Allen again for 25 yards before a key penalty on Strahan for delay of game. McNabb's 11-yard scramble up the middle set Akers up for the game-winner. The kick split the uprights, Big Blue's game-ending prayer went unanswered and the Giants' final flicker of hope this season was extinguished.

"Now you can call us losers," C Dusty Zeigler said. "But you can't call us quitters. I'd rather be a loser than a quitter."


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