The first NFC East title in 13 years could not have been any sweeter for the Philadelphia Eagles, although it nearly turned sour at the end.
Donovan McNabb staged two scoring drives in the final minutes, the last resulting in a 35-yard field goal by David Akers with seven seconds left as the Eagles posted a 24-21 victory over the Giants.
However, after the ensuing kickoff McNabb could only watch helplessly as the Giants nearly scored after Ron Dixon took a lateral from Tiki Barber and raced 57 yards before he was knocked out of bounds by safety Damon Moore at the Philadelphia 6 as time expired.
The win not only clinched the first division crown for Philadelphia (10-5) since 1988, but also enabled the Eagles to eliminate their NFC East rivals.
"For us to come out against an NFC East rival and play the way we did is something special," McNabb said. "It (NFC East champs) sounds good to us. How does it sound to you guys?"
The Giants (7-8) had won nine straight games against the Eagles, including a divisional playoff contest last January.
"It's as good as it gets, playing our biggest rival, a team that has beat us soundly over the last few years," said Eagles tight end Chad Lewis, who had two touchdown catches.
Philadelphia got the monkey off its back with a come-from-behind 10-9 win at Giants Stadium in October when McNabb hit James Thrash with an 18-yard touchdown with 1:52 left.
Thrash again was a prominent player in the rematch, catching seven passes for 143 yards, including a 57-yard touchdown, a 32-yard reception on Philadelphia's tying drive and a 25-yard catch on the winning drive. He victimized Giants rookie cornerback Will Allen on his three pivotal receptions.
"He was banged up this week with a high ankle sprain and did not practice a lot, but he sucked it up and came out and played a heck of a game," Eagles coach Andy Reid said.
After Ron Dayne scored on a 16-yard run to give the Giants a 21-14 lead with 2:43 left in the fourth quarter, McNabb directed a six-play, 67-yard drive in just 54 seconds.
Following the 32-yard pass to Thrash to the New York 7 down the right sideline, McNabb drilled a seven-yard touchdown pass to Lewis, tying the game at 21-21 with 1:49 remaining. It was the second TD of the game for Lewis, who had a season-high seven receptions for 74 yards.
Philadelphia's defense, which has yielded the fewest points in the NFL, then came through with a three-and-out, giving the ball back to McNabb with 58 seconds left.
Taking over at its own 29, Philadelphia again got a big play from Thrash, who caught a 25-yard pass to the New York 46. McNabb threw a nine-yard pass to Todd Pinkston and ran for four yards to the New York 33. Giants defensive end Michael Strahan was called for delay of game as he prevented McNabb from getting off the ground after the four-yard run and was penalized five yards.
"That's ridiculous," Strahan said of the penalty. "The referee said I was holding him (McNabb) down. If you're going to call that, you've got to call everything."
With the ball at the New York 28 and 21 seconds left, McNabb raced up the middle for 11 yards to the 17, setting up Akers' winning kick.
"They pretty much had the middle open," McNabb said of his scramble. "They were coming with an all-out blitz and I had a good spot to get down, pick up the first down, keep the clock moving and set us up for the field goal."
Earlier, Akers was short on a 43-yard attempt in the first half, snapping his streak of 17 consecutive field goals.
"I didn't miss the first one. It went straight and it just dropped short," Akers said. I can't help that the wind knocks it down. Going the other way (with the wind), I had a good sense (on the winning kick). Just make good contact with the ball, especially from 35 yards. Just make sure it went straight."
McNabb completed 21-of-39 passes for 270 yards and three touchdowns. He has passed for 3,233 yards, making him the first Eagles quarterback to have back-to-back 3,000-yard seasons since Randall Cunningham (1988-90).
"He stepped up and did a heck of a job under as much pressure as you are going to have," Reid said. "He hung right in there and took control of the huddle, with his throws and when to run it and when to dump it off and take his shots down the field."
Despite his mistake for delay of game, Strahan again shined for the Giants, registering 3 1/2 sacks to increase his season total to 21 1/2 and eclipsing the club record of 20 1/2 by Hall of Famer Lawrence Taylor.
"I never thought of it," Strahan said of the team record. L.T.'s the best Giant ever. I appreciate everything he's ever taught me."
Strahan has one game left to surpass Mark Gastineau's NFL record of 22 sacks for the New York Jets in 1984.
Strahan has especially flourished against Jon Runyan, victimizing the Eagles right tackle for 7 1/2 sacks in his last three games against Philadelphia.
The Giants continued their disturbing trend of failing to make the playoffs after a Super Bowl season. Following titles in 1986 and 1990, the Giants did not make the postseason and the defending NFC champions will go home early again.
"I think it's very difficult," Giants coach Jim Fassel said. "Coming off any successful season, it's hard to repeat again. But to not make the playoffs at this point is very disappointing."
After McNabb engineered the comeback, the Giants, who won in their last four visits to Veterans Stadium, nearly spoiled the party for the hometown fans with an astounding final play.
With seven seconds left, Kerry Collins threw a pass over the middle to Barber who ran to the New York 37 and lateraled the ball to Dixon. As two Eagle defenders went to tackle Barber, Dixon took the flip, raced to his left and ate up yards down the sideline. While it appeared the Giants had blockers in front of Dixon to seal off Bobby Taylor inside the Philadelphia 10, Moore raced across and was able to push Dixon out of bounds at the 6 to preserve the win as the fans breathed a collective sigh of relief.
"I didn't have a chance (of tackling Dixon) if Bobby wouldn't have been there slowing him up, fighting with his blocker," Moore said. "I knew I had a chance, but I didn't know how close he was. I didn't know if I was running out of space. He was eating up yards real fast."
"I knew that it was going to be close," Dixon said. "He (Moore) pulled me back and pushed me out of bounds."
McNabb engineered a nine-play, 72-yard drive on Philadelphia's first possession, capping it with a five-yard TD to Lewis 6:11 into the game. Lewis was the primary force in the drive, catching five for 53 yards.
"I'm glad that they threw me the ball," Lewis said. "It's something that we talked about all week, that Donovan was going to go to me."
After being dominated in the first half, the Giants tied the game when Amani Toomer caught a 60-yard touchdown pass from Collins on a flea flicker 2:26 into the third quarter.
Barber took a handoff and ran to his right before pitching it back to Collins, who found a wide-open Toomer over the middle.
"We talked about it coming out at halftime," Fassel said of the flea-flicker. "We put it in this week and it looked good all week. We needed a spark right there and they executed it."
The Giants took their first lead of the game when Morten Andersen kicked a 25-yard field goal with 2:38 left in the quarter after a 30-yard run by Dayne.
McNabb connected with Thrash on a 57-yard touchdown down the right sideline 49 seconds into the fourth quarter.
Andersen kicked his second field goal of the game -- a 32-yarder -- with 8:44 left.