EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. (AP) — Standing on the sideline with roughly eight minutes to play, DeSean Jackson was worried about Philadelphia’s playoff chances.
Upset with his own fumble that ballooned the New York Giants’ lead to 21 points minutes earlier, Jackson saw the NFC East title slipping away and possibly the Eagles’ postseason hopes.
A punt return? No way. It might have been the farthest thought from his mind. He had told coach Andy Reid the only way he would get back on the field with his sore foot was if the game was on the line — and that would take a miracle.
Funny thing happened. Thirty-two years after “The Fumble” at the Meadowlands gave Herm Edwards and another group of Eagles a miraculous victory that turned the Giants’ franchise upside down, there was another miracle, this time at the New Meadowlands Stadium.
LISTEN: Boomer & Carton on Meadowlands debacle
Jackson fielded a punt that was supposed to be kicked out of bounds and scored on an incredible 65-yard return on the final play, giving the Eagles a stunning 38-31 victory that all but locked up the division title with two weeks to go in the regular season.
“I have never been a part of anything like this game,” Eagles tight end Brent Celek said. “When we came into the locker room, it was almost like we won the Super Bowl.”
If this had been a Super Bowl, the final play might forever be known as “The Return.”
Michael Vick set the stage for it by throwing for two touchdowns and running for another as the Eagles scored 28 points in the final 7:28.
His 13-yard touchdown pass to Jeremy Maclin tied the game at 31 with 1:16 to go, and the game seemed headed for overtime when the Giants were forced to punt in the final seconds.
Giants coach Tom Coughlin even ordered rookie punter Matt Dodge to kick the ball out of bounds.
Before that happened, though, there was drama on the Eagles’ sideline.
Reid had told Jackson before the game he would give him a signal if he wanted him to return a punt, and the signal came in the form of a whistle.
“I knew the whistle was from coach Reid, who said, ‘Get your butt back there,’” Jackson said. “Even when I was on the field, he kept whistling at me.”
Dodge had every intention of following Coughlin’s orders, but he got a high snap from Zak DeOssie and hurried his punt, getting off a low line drive.
“I was thinking to myself, like, ‘They’re not going to kick it to me,’” Jackson said. “I was thinking he was going to kick it out of bounds. But it got to me. From there, I just used my instincts and my speed to get into the end zone.”
After muffing the ball, Jackson scooped it up, broke past the initial wave of tacklers, avoided a diving tackle attempt by Dodge, got a big block from receiver Jason Avant and broke into the open down the right sideline.
Coughlin was so frustrated, he fired his papers into the artificial turf and later screamed at Dodge.
Jackson finished his run with a little showtime, running along the goal line to kill the clock before scoring and throwing the ball into the stands, where 30 minutes earlier giddy Giants fans dreamed of a home playoff game.
“Somebody told me that coach Coughlin ran on the field and tried to get his kicker because he was just so (ticked) that his kicker punted the ball to me,” said Jackson, who was limited in practice this week with a foot injury. “That just shows how mad he was at that punter.”
Coughlin took responsibility for the final play, which the NFL said was the first walk-off punt return in league history.
“I’ve never been around anything like this in my life,” said the 64-year-old coach, whose job may be on the line if the Giants miss the playoffs for a second straight year. “It’s about as empty as you get to feel in this business, right there.”
“I’ll take full responsibility for the last play,” Coughlin said. “With him back there, you don’t punt the ball to him.”
POSTGAME: Tom Coughlin takes responsibility for loss
The electrifying finish gave the Eagles (10-4) a one-game lead over the Giants (9-5) in the NFC East.
Since it swept the season series, Philadelphia can clinch the division with a win in its final two games or a Giants loss.
The stunning turn of events brought back thoughts of Joe Pisarcik’s fumble in 1978. The Giants quarterback botched a handoff at the end of the game, allowing Edwards to scoop up the loose ball and run in for the winning points.
“Of course, mine wasn’t as dramatic,” said Edwards, now an analyst for ESPN. “I just had to pick it up and not fall down. I didn’t have to have the burst he had.”
Edwards knows he and Jackson now will be “linked together.”
When he saw Jackson hit the crease, “I said to myself ‘are you kidding me? Is this about to happen? Same two teams, same result, same site?’ And what many people won’t remember is that it was the same corner of the end zone from the Miracle. Different stadium, but it was that same corner that I finished in. Unbelievable.”
The Giants still control their own postseason destiny. They hold a one-game lead over Green Bay and Tampa Bay for the final playoff berth.
The Packers were beaten 31-27 by New England on Sunday night, while the Bucs were stunned 23-20 in overtime by the Lions.
The problem for the Giants will be recovering from this loss, and they need to do it soon. They play the Packers in Green Bay next weekend.
“I’m not as mad about this game as people might think, just because I’m looking forward to the next one,” Giants defensive end Justin Tuck said. “That’s what you have to do, you can’t allow yourself to get caught up in the emotions of this one and not be ready for Green Bay.”
Vick threw for 242 yards and three touchdowns, and ran for a game-high 130 yards and another score. He threw a 65-yard TD pass to Celek to get the rally started, ran 4 yards for another and then hit Maclin to tie the game.
Lost in the comeback was a four-touchdown performance by Eli Manning. He hit Mario Manningham on scoring passes of 35 and 33 yards and had 8-yarders to Hakeem Nicks and Kevin Boss, with the one to the tight end giving the Giants a 31-10 lead with 8:17 to play.
Manning finished with 289 yards passing. Manningham had eight catches for 118 yards. But it was all for naught in the loss, which also clinched a playoff spot for Atlanta (12-2).
“This game is all about momentum. We had it in the first half. They had it in the second,” Giants center Shaun O’Hara said. “I don’t think there are enough words in the dictionary to describe how we feel right now.”
Copyright 2010 The Associated Press.