Posted by ESPN.com's Matt Mosley
EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. -- For most of the 2008 season, the New York Giants served notice they aren't a team to be second-guessed. They lost a couple of star players in the offseason, another to injury and one accidentally shot himself in the leg. And through it all, we kept remembering the team's improbable march to a Super Bowl title last winter.
But on a blustery day in early January, we learned to doubt again. The Philadelphia Eagles took a page out of the Giants' 2007 playbook and rode a wave of momentum into the NFC Championship Game. But make no mistake. The Eagles didn't sneak into the Meadowlands and steal one from the defending world champs Sunday. They beat the Giants into submission at the line of scrimmage in a 23-11 win.
If anything, the Eagles and Cardinals have shown that the regular season might be overrated. Using the parlance from my other favorite tournament, March Madness, these teams are bracket busters. As they first displayed last month in this same venue, though, the Eagles have become a superior team to the Giants.
"It's not like we came here and they just flat out beat us," Giants quarterback Eli Manning said. "We moved the ball, we had opportunities, we had chances, we just didn't make the plays when we needed to."
With all due respect to the Super Bowl MVP, I thought the Eagles flat out beat the Giants. And when All-Pro defensive end Justin Tuck replaced Manning on the main interview stage, he pretty much backed me up.
"Maybe we're not as good as we thought we were," said Tuck, who had to leave the game twice with injuries.
Tuck assumed a major leadership role on this team when his mentor, Michael Strahan, retired and Pro Bowl defensive end Osi Umenyiora was lost to a season-ending knee injury during the preseason. Tuck sat on a stool in front of his locker for several minutes massaging his temple as if he had a migraine. As he finally walked into the frigid night air in search of his wife, he addressed a topic that he'd tried not to think about the past couple of weeks.
"If it were up to me, we would've forfeited the bye week and played last week," he said. "It was good in a way because we had guys banged up, but I don't like the bye."
Who knows? If this current trend continues, perhaps teams will start tanking games at the end of the season. Since 2005, teams with a bye in the first round of the playoffs are a combined 7-9.
Giants apologists might point to their 138 yards rushing as a sign that they controlled the line of scrimmage, but they'd be wrong. Armed with one of the most punishing runners in the game, Tom Coughlin went away from Brandon Jacobs at key moments. Jacobs finished with 92 yards on 19 carries, but too many times he tried to bounce runs outside, where Eagles defensive end Trent Cole and linebacker Chris Gocong were waiting to slam him to the turf.
The Giants waited until they were down 20-11 in the fourth quarter to start running between the tackles with Jacobs and Derrick Ward. It was too late. Coughlin needed to take that approach when his team had the ball at its 13-yard line midway through the first quarter and was headed into the teeth of 20-mph winds.
Manning instead threw a slant route off his back foot that Plaxico Burress (or the 6-foot-8 Harold Carmichael) couldn't have caught. The most prolific postseason thief in the game, Asante Samuel, had an easy interception, which set up the Eagles' first touchdown.
Manning wasn't Jake Delhomme bad, but it was certainly a forgettable day for a player who capitalized on so many opportunities in last year's postseason. Manning was 15-of-29 for 169 yards and two interceptions. His head coach tried to offer him a weather-related out, but Manning didn't take the bait.
"No, I didn't think the wind was all that bad today," he said. "We definitely played in worse cases of wind. There were times when there was a little bit in there, but I don't think it affected what we were doing or any of my throws that would have made a big difference."
Maybe Burress was the only winner in the Giants organization. No matter how you break it down, the Giants are 1-4 without him. That doesn't mean you bring back such an undependable player, but it's imperative that you quickly figure out if Burress' replacement is currently on the roster. Domenik Hixon is a talented young player, but he's an unfinished product. He dropped one Manning knuckleball, but he caught a 34-yard pass on which he beat cornerback Joselio Hanson.
"Well when [Burress] isn't there, there is a huge part of their offense taken away," Eagles safety Brian Dawkins said. "The ability of him and Eli [Manning] to be on the same page, sometimes playing playground ball on the weak side, if he has a one on one over there, they feel he is going to win that battle nine times out of 10. As a defense you don't have to be concerned with roaming from one guy to another because you can't play Plaxico one-on-one without expecting him to have a huge game."
The Giants were a pitiful 3-of-13 on third down and 1-of-3 on fourth. Facing a fourth-and-1 early in the fourth quarter, the Giants called for a quarterback sneak. It's a curious call when you have a 260-pound tailback standing a few yards behind Eli Manning. Eagles defensive tackle Mike Patterson and Brodrick Bunkley blew up the play.
On the next possession, Coughlin was indecisive on a fourth-and-2 call, but decided to stick with a running play to Jacobs. Bunkley and linebacker Stewart Bradley met Jacobs at the line of scrimmage and he ended up a yard short.
"As I tell the players, the losses are mine. They are my responsibility," Coughlin said.
And on this afternoon, it was tough to argue with him.