A Cardiac Clincher After a last-second scare, Birds wrap up division title

Posted: December 31, 2001

The Eagles know exactly how much history weighs, because it was squarely upon their shoulders after the New York Giants took a fourth-quarter lead yesterday.

No division titles since 1988.

No wins over the Giants at Veterans Stadium in five years.

No victories over playoff-caliber teams all season.

It was all there.

The Eagles shrugged it off with dramatic flair.

Twice.

Donovan McNabb led his oft-maligned offensive teammates to two scores in the final two minutes, shoving history aside for a 24-21 victory and the NFC East title.

David Akers provided the game-winning points on a 35-yard field goal with seven seconds left. Safety Damon Moore preserved the win by tackling Giant Ron Dixon from behind at the Eagles' 6-yard line on the game's final, did-you-see-that play.

History isn't easily shrugged off.

"It's a great win," Eagles coach Andy Reid said. "I'm fired up. You can't tell? I'm very excited. This is a great win for this franchise."

The Eagles clinched a home playoff game with the win. In a strange twist created by the postponement of the NFL's Week 2 slate of games, the Eagles will play the Tampa Bay Buccaneers two weeks in a row.

After finishing the regular season in Tampa on Sunday night, the Eagles will host the Buccaneers in a wild-card playoff on either Jan. 12 or 13.

If they win that game, they would play the next round on the road.

"We still have a long way to go," Eagles defensive end Hugh Douglas said. "We got a hat and a T-shirt [for winning the division]. That's nice and all. I can give them to my family members. But that's not what I really want."

Douglas really wants a Super Bowl ring. And though the Eagles will have to win three games to make it to New Orleans, they proved yesterday they can come up big when the pressure is on.

The Giants, who beat the Eagles in nine of their previous 10 meetings, scored on consecutive fourth-quarter possessions to take a 21-14 lead with 2 minutes, 43 seconds to play.

Enter McNabb, who looked brilliant on a game-opening touchdown drive and pedestrian for much of the rest of the game. After a Giants penalty gave the Eagles a first down at their own 41, McNabb fired a 15-yard pass to Freddie Mitchell, then followed with a 32-yard strike to James Thrash at the New York 7.

A week ago, the Eagles got inside the San Francisco 10 and failed on seven attempts to score a touchdown.

That's history.

McNabb found Chad Lewis a half-step behind Giants linebacker Mike Barrow for the touchdown.

It was a perfect throw, all but grazing Barrow's shoulder.

"It was tight," McNabb said. "I tried to put it over his shoulder so that only Chad could get it."

Lewis, who caught that first-quarter touchdown, got it. Akers' point-after tied the game.

It was time for an exhausted Eagles defense to do its part. After shutting the Giants out in the first half and giving up one trick-play touchdown in the third quarter, the Eagles had hit the wall. Stretched thin by injuries on the defensive line, they had given way on what amounted to a 91-yard touchdown drive a few minutes earlier.

Now they were on the spot again.

"We knew we had to get a three-and-out there," cornerback Troy Vincent said. "Someone had to make a play. On third down, I drove the slant [to Amani Toomer], and I was able to break it up. We gave our offense one more shot."

The clock showed 58 seconds left in regulation.

McNabb to Thrash, 25 yards. McNabb to Todd Pinkston, 9 yards. After spiking the ball to stop the clock, McNabb picked up the first down by - of all things - a quarterback keeper. It was the play fans wanted to see in San Francisco.

History.

McNabb picked up 4 yards. Just as important, the Giants were called for a delay-of-game penalty for not allowing him to get up after the play.

On the next play, McNabb ran up the middle for 11 yards, slid, and called time-out.

Along the sideline, groups of Eagles knelt side-by-side, hands clenched and heads down.

Akers waited through that time-out and another called by the Giants, then calmly drilled the game-winner.

The celebration began. There were tears of joy from players who remember being 3-13 just three seasons ago and 5-11 two years back.

Those tears almost turned into the other kind.

Akers' kickoff was a touchback, giving the Giants the ball at their own 20 with 7 seconds left. Kerry Collins threw a short pass to Tiki Barber, as he'd done so many times during the game. As Jeremiah Trotter was dragging the running back down, Barber flipped the ball to Dixon. Last January, Dixon returned the opening kickoff of the divisional playoff game for a touchdown, all but beating the Eagles on that game's first play.

This time, Dixon got out to the left sideline and looked as if he just might run forever.

"I was hoping someone would get him," Trotter said. "I was hoping someone in the stands would shoot him. Anything to stop him."

"I just ran," Vincent said. "I tried to get an angle and hoped someone would slow him down."

"He wasn't slowing down," Moore said. "I ran. I think Troy would have gotten him. Really, I wish it hadn't come down to that."

Moore dove, tripping Dixon up. Dixon was knocked out of bounds just inside the Eagles 6-yard line.

"I wanted to kiss whoever made the tackle," Trotter said, pausing to set up the punch line. "But when I saw it was Damon, I just hugged him."

Most of Philadelphia probably would like to hug Moore after that play. He ended the game just nine feet from a disaster, from a total Eagles collapse under the weight of all that history.

Phil Sheridan's e-mail address is psheridan@phillynews.com.

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