I can't quite believe I'm writing this, but the Birds are back in the NFC Championship Game.
I tell you what, in late November, I was talking with my dad after the Eagles coughed up a couple of crappers in-a-row....that miserable (yet oh-so necessary it turns out) tie with Cincinnati and the debacle against the Ravens, and I had to agree with him when he said, "Ant, this just isn't a team capable of winning a championship." It was definitely a dark moment from this year. McNabb looked horrible and the offense simply seemed incapable of mounting anything resembling a consistent, professional offense.
I've watched all the highlights, multiple times, read a bunch of stories about the game, hell, I even Tivo'd the AFN re-broadcast of the game.
There were plenty of talk about the defense on its back-to-back 4th down stands and the gutsy performance from McNabb and the offense. But in all the coverage there is one thing I haven't seen: someone remark on a key play as the 2nd quarter wound down: DT/DE Darren Howard's huge hustle play stopping Derrick Ward short of a first down on a 3rd and 5 with less than 2:00 left. It is the sort of "unsung hero" play that often goes overlooked.
So why did it stick out to me? First off, because the Giants were down 7-5 at the time, but driving for an end-of-the-half score. It was 3rd and 5, and Eli Manning hits Ward on a little swing pass. It looks like a sure first down conversion, but Howard leaps and hauls him down from behind two yards short of the first.
Why does this matter? First off, it stifled the Giants drive and compelled Tom Coughlin to go for the FG and try to take a 8-7 lead into halftime. It also allowed the Eagles to get the ball back with about 1:30, which turned out to be plenty of time for McNabb to guide the Birds down the field with the two-minute offense and set up a David Akers FG as time expired, giving the Birds a 10-8 lead at the half.
Without Howard's tackle, the Giants would probably have run the rest of the time off the 2nd qtr clock, and taken a lead into the half. More importantly, the drive McNabb engineered to end the half wouldn't have happened, at it is that drive which Donovan credited as giving the Eagles the momentum and confidence they had in the 3rd and the 4th quarters. So without that tackle, the Eagles have no confidence building drive and no lead heading into the second half, and who knows where the game heads after that.
That is why I consider Darren Howard's stop my unsung key of the game.