PHILADELPHIA – While New York Giants running back Tiki Barber's career came to an honorable end Sunday and coach Tom Coughlin's tenure with Big Blue may simply have ended, the Philadelphia Eagles continued their season after recognizing enough was enough.
Philadelphia offensive coordinator Marty Mornhinweg put a quick end to a game plan that simply wasn't working, tossing a week's worth of preparation in a high-pressure NFC wild-card game. That was the key maneuver as the Eagles came away with a 23-20 victory at Lincoln Financial Field.
Eagles kicker David Akers hit a 38-yard field goal with no time remaining on the clock to put the finishing touches on a game that was fascinating from a tactical standpoint, but not always well executed.
The win put the Eagles into the second round of the NFL playoffs against the New Orleans Saints on Saturday night, setting up a rematch of a New Orleans win earlier this season sparked by a time-consuming late drive and subsequent field goal.
The Eagles executed their own such drive against the Giants, going 46 yards on 10 plays and killing the final 5:04 of the game after the Giants had tied the score at 20.
It was a crushing end for Barber, Coughlin and the rest of the Giants as they could basically do nothing at the end but watch the Eagles. Barber did everything he could to extend his career to another game, running 26 times for 137 yards and had two key runs to set up field goals.
"It's fitting in a lot of ways 'cause this is one of the hardest places I've ever played," Barber said. "A lot of those guys are my biggest rivals, yet some of my greatest friends, and so it was fitting in some ways to come down here and play this game which ultimately was my last … We did what we needed to make this game close."
Coughlin even hinted that he'll try to talk Barber into returning next season, although that seems highly unlikely.
"He has been a great player, great person to work with and I will have to give some more thought to that," Coughlin said.
The real question is whether New York management will give Coughlin another chance after a season that featured in-fighting and sloppy play. Coughlin wouldn't discuss his future. Likewise, owner John Mara said that he would address the situation later in the week. But there has been speculation during the second half of the season that he will not be back. The Giants were 6-2 at one point, but went 2-7 over their final nine games, including the playoff loss.
"Let's not lose track of the good things," said Coughlin, who stopped short of getting truly angry on several occasions. "I know we are in a mood and we have been that way for most of the year, where it's all negative, but it's not all negative."
Maybe not everything, but it's clear that Giants quarterback Eli Manning took a step backwards this season and didn't respond to Coughlin's prodding, which at times was downright belligerent.
Manning's effort was excellent on touchdown drives to open and close the game for the Giants. In between, he was ordinary to bad, continuing his trend of wildly inconsistent play.
But all of the Manning-Coughlin drama had little to do with the key decision by Mornhinweg. Over the first three drives of the game, the Giants completely contained the Eagles, holding them to five total yards and no first downs.
Where many coaches might have been hard-headed and stuck to their plans longer, Mornhinweg switched gears and started running mostly three- and four-receiver sets.
"No, it's not always easy to do something like that, but it was pretty obvious that what they were doing was working, so we had to make a change," he said.
When the Eagles changed their plan, the Giants had to respond by changing their personnel. That freed running back Brian Westbrook for another outstanding game as he rushed for 141 yards on 20 carries, including a 49-yard touchdown run in the second quarter.
Eagles quarterback Jeff Garcia continued his steady play by completing 17 of 31 for 153 yards and a touchdown. But it was clearly Mornhinweg's quick change that opened the game.
"It gave us a lot more support on the edge to run it," wide receiver Reggie Brown said of the formation change. "That got Brian out there and gave us the balance we need to keep going."
And, ultimately, to keep New York from going any further.