December 30, 2011

2001: Late Comeback Pulls Eagles Over Giants to Clinch NFC East Title

Prior to the 2001 NFL season, the New York Giants had won nine straight games against their long-time rivals, the Philadelphia Eagles, including three in 2000 as the teams met in a NFC Divisional playoff contest. The Eagles had finally broken the string with a dramatic 10-9 win in the last two minutes of a Monday Night Football matchup at Giants Stadium, and on December 30 they faced off at Philadelphia’s Veterans Stadium with the NFC East title on the line. The Eagles were 9-5 coming into the game and needed a win to clinch the division title while New York, at 7-7, had won its last two contests and needed to keep winning to stay alive.

The Eagles had not finished first in the division since 1988 and were only recently resurgent under third-year Head Coach Andy Reid. The pass-oriented club ran a West Coast offense directed by QB Donovan McNabb (pictured above), who could be a streaky passer but brought mobility and an ability to improvise to the position. TE Chad Lewis was his go-to receiver. The running backs were veteran Duce Staley, also a good receiver out of the backfield, and rookie Correll Buckhalter. The defense was stronger against the pass than the run but had been very effective overall.

New York, coached by Jim Fassel, was the defending NFC Champion but had difficulties in ’01. The offense, directed by offensive coordinator Sean Payton, was not as proficient as it had been in 2000. RB Tiki Barber was the top playmaker, splitting time with RB Ron Dayne. QB Kerry Collins, having a lesser season after his outstanding performance in 2000, had a savvy veteran tandem of wide receivers available in Amani Toomer and Ike Hilliard. The defense had the league’s top pass rusher with DE Michael Strahan, who was equally able against the run.

There were 65,885 fans jamming the Vet and it was apparent before the game even began that emotions were running high between the clubs when a scuffle broke out among some of the Eagles and Giants players during pregame warmups. The Giants had the first possession and went three-and-out. Philadelphia responded with a nine-play, 72-yard drive in which McNabb completed six of seven passes for 68 of those yards, including a 31-yard completion to Lewis to the New York 41. It was Lewis pulling in a five-yard TD pass that gave the Eagles an early 7-0 lead.

That was it for the first half scoring. While Philadelphia dominated during the first thirty minutes of play, the Eagles were unable to put any more points on the board. It seemed as though that failure might cost them dearly when, on New York’s first play of the third quarter, Collins connected with Toomer for a 60-yard touchdown on a flea-flicker play. Morten Andersen’s extra point tied the contest at 7-7 and, ten minutes later, he put the Giants in the lead with a 25-yard field goal that completed a 43-yard drive highlighted by RB Ron Dayne’s 30-yard run to the Philadelphia 20.

Early in the fourth quarter, the Eagles moved back in front at 14-10 when McNabb threw to WR James Thrash (pictured at right), who had won the earlier encounter between the two clubs with a scoring reception, for a 57-yard touchdown down the right sideline. The Giants responded with a 58-yard drive over 12 plays that included Collins completions to WR Joe Jurevicius for 18 yards and Barber, who also contributed a 10-yard run, for 15. The 41-year-old Andersen booted a 32-yard field goal to make it a one-point game.

The Giants again took the lead with an 81-yard drive over nine plays that consumed nearly five minutes. Collins had big completions, twice hitting TE Dan Campbell for gains totaling 31 yards and one to Barber for 10 yards. It seemed as though New York had ground the Eagles defense down when Barber ran for 23 yards to the Philadelphia 28 on a third-and-one play and Dayne finished the series with a 16-yard scoring carry. Barber successfully rushed for the two-point conversion and, with 2:43 left to play in the final period, the Giants were ahead by 21-14 and appeared to have regained mastery over the Eagles.

Following the kickoff, Philadelphia took 54 seconds to move the ball 67 yards in six plays. McNabb threw to WR Freddie Mitchell for 15 yards to get into New York territory and then connected with Thrash for a key 32-yard gain to the Giants’ seven yard line. From there, Lewis pulled in his second scoring catch of the day and David Akers successfully kicked the extra point to tie the contest at 21-21.

Philadelphia’s defense rose to the occasion, holding the Giants to a three-and-out possession. With the ball on their own 29, the Eagles took over with a scant 58 seconds on the clock. McNabb threw to WR Todd Pinkston for nine yards and then ran for four. When Strahan appeared to be trying to hold the quarterback down after the play, the Giants were penalized five yards for delay of game. The ball was now at the New York 28 and McNabb ran again, taking off up the middle for 11 yards. Akers, who had had a string of 17 consecutive successful field goal attempts snapped in the first half when his 43-yard kick into the wind fell short, had the wind at his back this time and was successful from 35 yards to put the Eagles in front.

There were still seven seconds left and Akers booted the kickoff through the end zone for a touchback rather than squibbing the kick. With time for one desperation play, Collins threw down the middle for Barber, who advanced to the New York 37 and lateraled to speedy backup WR Ron Dixon on a hook-and-ladder play. There was a long history between the Eagles and Giants of astounding finishes, and it seemed as though it might occur once again as Dixon headed to his left and blazed down the field. However, SS Damon Moore raced over to push Dixon out of bounds at the six yard line and, with time expired, the Eagles were division champs by a score of 24-21.

The Giants had the edge in total yards (420 to 361) although Philadelphia had more first downs (21 to 18). The Eagles also had more turnovers, with two to New York’s one.

Donovan McNabb completed 21 of 39 passes for 270 yards with three touchdowns and one interception – he also led the club in rushing with 48 yards on 7 carries. James Thrash caught 7 passes for 143 yards and a TD while Chad Lewis also had 7 catches that gained 74 yards and two touchdowns. Among the running backs, Correll Buckhalter rushed for 39 yards on 7 attempts while Duce Staley contributed 8 carries for 23 yards.

For the Giants, Tiki Barber (pictured below) ran for 71 yards on 16 carries and caught 10 passes for another 87 yards. Ron Dayne added 59 yards and a TD on 8 attempts. Kerry Collins threw 39 passes and completed 22 for 303 yards with a touchdown and none intercepted. Amani Toomer gained 69 yards and scored once on his three catches. Michael Strahan, having regularly done well against Eagles OT Jon Runyan and pursuing the single-season record for sacks, added 3.5 to his total.

“Donovan stepped up and did a great job in as much pressure as you can have,” said Andy Reid of McNabb’s performance afterward.

With their postseason status set, the Eagles won the season finale at Tampa Bay to end up with an 11-5 record and then beat the Buccaneers again at home in the Wild Card playoff round. They also defeated the Chicago Bears at the Divisional level but lost to the Rams in the NFC Championship game – their first of three consecutive losses in the conference title game before winning in their fourth attempt. The loss in Philadelphia eliminated the Giants from playoff contention and they fell again in their last game to end up third in the NFC East with a disappointing 7-9 tally.

Donovan McNabb ranked fourth in the NFC in passing (84.3 rating) and fifth in TD passes (25) while throwing for 3233 yards. He also rushed for 482 yards on 82 carries (5.9 avg.). McNabb was named to the Pro Bowl for the second of an eventual five straight seasons (six overall).

James Thrash, who performed so notably against the Giants in 2001, tied for the team lead with 63 catches and led the club with 833 yards and 8 touchdowns. It was his first, and most productive, year with the Eagles.

Michael Strahan did succeed in setting a league record with 22.5 sacks. Of that total, 5.5 came in the two contests against Philadelphia. He was named NFL Defensive Player of the Year by the Associated Press.