EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. --The journey is not yet over, not by a long shot. They have been down this road before, five times in the last eight seasons, to be exact, and a trip to the NFC Championship Game is a major step, but not the final one. When it was over on Sunday, and when the Eagles had made the final tackle and bloodied the last lip of the New York Giants in a 23-11 win, Brian Dawkins stood in front of the cameras and the reporters and said the right words, the ones we all search for at times like these.
"It's a great journey right now, very, very intriguing. It's a delightful and pleasant journey," said Dawkins. "We just believe in one another so much right now ... it's a collective heartbeat right now. And having a collective heartbeat on a team is a very powerful thing."
Yes, the Eagles all Believe In Green. They trust each other. They love each other. They have taken a shipwreck of a 5-5-1 season and ripped off six wins in seven weeks, and now they stand one victory away from a return trip to the Super Bowl. It won't be easy, of course. The Cardinals are an outstanding team, as we all saw on Saturday night when they dismantled Carolina, and the Cardinals have great momentum going, too. We can talk about that game later in the week.
For now, it is all about overcoming the Giants. Truly, this was a heavyweight bout for three quarters. The offense struggled -- "tough sledding," offensive coordinator Marty Mornhinweg said of the Eagles offense in the early going -- and then Donovan McNabb and Co. got a little something going late in the first half, driving 68 yards in 12 plays and finishing the half with a David Akers 25-yard field goal to give the Eagles a 10-8 lead at the half.
New York got those three points back and led 11-10 after a McNabb pass on the first offensive series of the third quarter was tipped and then intercepted, but the entire game swung on the next possession. Still feeling some mojo, McNabb drove the offense 58 yards on 12 plays for another Akers field goal, this time from 35 yards, and the Eagles went ahead for good at 13-11. The Eagles had it going on offense, just as they did in the December 7 win over the Giants here: They dominated in the second half then, and they moved the ball much better in the second half on Sunday than they did in the first half.
All they needed was a little breathing room. Jim Johnson's defense was dominating New York, giving up a couple of runs here and then and a big pass or two, but the Eagles were outstanding at getting off the field and taking the game away from the Giants. McNabb engineered a 10-play, 63-yard drive that ended with a beauty of a play -- a play-action fake to fullback Dan Klecko and then a lovely pass from McNabb to tight end Brent Celek in the left corner of the end zone for a touchdown.
It was a great red-zone sequence, set up perhaps by the goal-line offense the Eagles ran in the first quarter after Asante Samuel -- have you seen a better big-game cornerback in your Eagles life? -- intercepted Eli Manning and returned the ball to the 2-yard line. It took the Eagles there plays to gain those 2 yards, and they were all snot-knocker calls -- a Brian Westbrook run to the left side, a Westbrook rush up the gut and, finally, a quarterback sneak from McNabb.
There was a penalty on a pass for Kevin Curtis, a defensive holding call against the Giants that gave the Eagles a first-and-goal situation at the 2-yard line, but you get the idea: The Eagles wanted to bully the football into the end zone.
The next time down there, the Eagles played the other way, and used some finesse and scored on one play.
"There were some specific thoughts we had going in," said Mornhinweg. "We just faked the run and flooded that area. It's very quick normally, and if any of their linebackers false steps at all, typically, you got 'em."
The Celek touchdown happened on the first play of the fourth quarter, giving the Eagles a 20-11 lead. And with the way the defense was playing, it seemed pretty safe as the groundswell of Eagles fans in the Giants Stadium stands started to rumble and shake and make noise.
The fourth quarter belonged to the Eagles defense. New York gained four first downs in the quarter, but the Eagles twice stopped New York on fourth-and-short plays -- one a fourth-and-1 run and the other a fourth-and-2 run -- and also forced a pair of turnovers -- one a Quintin Mikell interception and the second a Victor Abiamiri fumble recovery.
The defense, in short -- and long -- was brilliant. The Giants converted only 3 of 13 third downs and were 1 of 3 on fourth downs. Manning completed just 15 of 29 passes for 169 yards and 2 interceptions. He compiled a passer rating of 40.7. The Eagles defense, which has been coming and coming and coming all season, delivered again. Mike Patterson led a terrific effort up front, and Chris Gocong, Stewart Bradley and Akeem Jordan were outstanding at the linebacker positions.
And what can you say about Samuel, Mikell and the Eagles secondary? For a second straight game, they dominated the Giants. Only that meaningless touchdown late on December 7 kept the Eagles from keeping New York out of the end zone for two straight games.
"I'm proud of this group. They love to play football and it shows," said defensive coordinator Jim Johnson, who watched the game from the coaching booth, not the sidelines, to nurse an aching back. "It's a good group. They've been good for most of the season, and you can just see them getting better and better.
"We knew the Giants wanted to run the football, so we were able to get our players in the box and put them in the right position. There weren't many surprises, maybe a blitz or two here and there, but for the most part it was man on man and we won the battles. I credit the players. They were great on fourth downs, and they were pretty darn good on third downs, too."
And how about McNabb, who has gone through one of the most, um, eventful seasons in a wild career? He had some pressure early -- the Giants sacked McNabb for a safety in the second quarter -- but McNabb hung in and delivered. He threw two interceptions -- one that was as good as a punt on a long pass down the sidelines when he was pressured -- and the other early in the third quarter when a pass toward Kevin Curtis was tipped and intercepted by Fred Robbins.
Otherwise, McNabb was outstanding. He threw some great passes into very tight windows and kept the offense moving. The Giants sent pressure his way, but McNabb still completed passes to seven players and was 22 of 40 for 217 yards overall. His passer rating of 58.0 wasn't indicative of the way he played.
"I thought he managed the game excellent, I thought he moved very well ... I thought he did some excellent things," said Mornhinweg.
Everybody did. David Akers kicked three field goals and was better than Pro Bowl kicker John Carney, who missed two field goal tries. Sav Rocca averaged 42 yards with a 40.0-yard net on his two punts. DeSean Jackson had four catches, Curtis had four and Jason Avant had four.
Westbrook ran 18 times for 36 yards with a long of only 8 yards, but the Eagles still dialed up the run 28 times and kept the Giants honest enough to make some plays when they needed to make the plays.
It was just a great Eagles day and game. Taut, aggressive -- a typical playoff game against the Giants. The Eagles keep rolling along, together as One, and very aware that the next step will be the most difficult one yet.
On this day, in Giants Stadium, the Eagles made more magic in a season that has been extraordinary. Remarkable, for sure. From 5-5-1 to here. Anybody out there think on Thanksgiving Night that the Eagles and Cardinals would be playing for the right to go to the Super Bowl?
Oh, this is so much fun. The Eagles will celebrate for a day, maybe less, and then gear it up again for Arizona. Why stop now? They Believe In Green, every one of them, as they march toward another NFC Championship Game appearance.