By Jeremy Gottlieb, Patriots Daily Staff

If you missed Sunday’s Giants/Eagles clash at the New Meadowlands, or at the very least, the fourth quarter, you missed what was likely the game of the year. The Eagles trailed 31-10 with just over eight minutes to play, had been completely bottled up by the resurgent Giants all day long and were staring down the barrel of a loss that would cost them a shot at the NFC East crown and at least one home playoff game. But Michael Vick took the game over, mostly with his legs, and Philly shockingly rallied to a 38-31 win when Giants rookie punter Matt Dodge failed to punt the ball out of bounds in the waning seconds of a 31-all tie, instead booting it right to DeSean Jackson, only one of the two or three most dangerous, open field players in the league. Naturally, Jackson picked up the ball after initially dropping it, made a quick move and was off the races, scoring the game-winning TD as time expired and single-handedly causing the chunks to stir in the gullets of every Giants player, coach and fan in the stadium and beyond.

It was a stunning collapse on several levels, not the least of which was the fact that the Giants, who had so thoroughly dominated up to that 8-minute mark, collectively went to sleep. It’s easy to understand the thought process behind moving your defense way back with a 21-point lead in the late stages of a game – the last thing you want to do in that situation is give up a long pass play (although that’s exactly what happened on the Eagles first score of their comeback when Vick found tight end Brent Celek on a deep slant, Celek’s man fell down and there was no one left downfield to stop him). But against a quarterback like Vick, a guy much more prone to run around and try to get outside under such circumstances, leaving that much space in the middle of the field for him to make a play running with the ball may not be the best plan. He wound up with 130 yards rushing on just 10 carries. The Giants had held the Eagles to 198 total yards for the game’s first 52 minutes. Why change what was working so well for you?

It didn’t help the Giants at all either that their offense completely stagnated. Eli Manning passed for nearly 300 yards and four TDs but four of the Giants last five possessions ended in punts, including their last, which was a miserable, three-and-out right on the heels of the Eagles tying the score at 31 and led to the fateful Dodge punt. Maybe the Eagles defense was so fired up by what the offense had wrought throughout that final quarter that they were suddenly impenetrable. Or, maybe the Giants took too much comfort in their big lead and stopped doing what had worked so well for them up to that point in favor of a more conservative approach. I’m going with the second option there. Add to that the home team’s total surprise when the Eagles went for an onside kick after cutting the lead to 31-17, an attempt that was of course successful and further fueled the Philly comeback, and it’s clear that enough people on the Giants sideline had packed it in with that big lead that it may have been impossible to avoid their disastrous fate.

Dodge’s kick got most of the press, probably because a game had never ended on such a play in NFL history prior to the Jackson return, it was a spectacular run and Giants coach Tom Coughlin actually came out on the field as the Eagles were celebrating to yell at the shell-shocked rookie punter. He should have; Dodge has had a litany of issues this year from fumbled snaps to shanked kicks and so on. If you are punting in the NFL, your coach says, “whatever you do, don’t kick it to that guy, just knock it out of bounds,” and you then go out and do exactly what he told you not to do, you deserve for him to humiliate you on the field in full view of the cameras. What will be the most interesting aspect of this incredible game, though, will be how the Giants respond. They now have to win their final two games just to make the playoffs, and this week’s test is a road game against a similarly desperate Packers team that will be playing at home with its starting QB returning from a week out thanks to a concussion. There are rumors swirling that Coughlin’s job is now in jeopardy, a theory that doesn’t make much sense given how they were eight minutes from a division title after playing their best football of the season over the past month right up to that 8-minute mark. Whatever happens, it was a phenomenal finish to what would otherwise have been a rather ho-hum kind of blowout. Just another example of why the NFL is so fantastic.

This Week’s Five Best Teams

1. New England: Not interested in any more dissection of the near disaster against the Packers so here’s another absolutely outstanding stat regarding the best team in the NFL. Over the course of the Pats current, six-game winning streak, Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez have combined for 29 catches, 369 yards and eight TDs. Boing.

2. Atlanta: The biggest question regarding whether the Falcons are contenders or pretenders has always been if they can win on the road. Well, they’ve played four of their last five games away from home and won all of them, by an average of 12 points. They’re 6-2 out of Georgia and will be hosting playoff games in January.

3. Philadelphia: The biggest headlines surrounding the Eagles monumental, comeback, 38-31 win over the woebegone Giants last week focused on Jackson’s punt return and Dodge’s inability to kick the ball out of bounds. But Vick was the real story, leading his team to 220 yards and three TD drives of 75, 57 and 85, respectively over the final eight minutes of the game. Hate the guy if you want, but man is he an unbelievable player.

4. Baltimore: The Ravens defense (prevalently featuring loser/Brady-hater Terell Suggs) blew another fourth quarter lead last against the Saints, but was bailed out by the offense, primarily Ray Rice. Rice had 31 rushes for 153 yards, caught five passes for 80 yards and scored two TDs. His big runs salted the game away late for Baltimore, which will need more performances like Sunday’s out of him if Suggs and the defense continue to sputter down the stretch.

5. (tie) New Orleans/Pittsburgh: Not a very inspiring sight for Saints fans to see their D gashed so thoroughly by Rice and Co. But the offense is fully healthy and really clicking at the right time, which should be easing to any worried, New Orleans minds. As for the Steelers, they lost another home game to an AFC East foe, this time the Jets, though they had a great chance to take it in the end thanks to some more woeful,l in-game coaching by Rex Ryan and crew (see below). In keeping with other season-long patterns, safety Ryan Clark was flagged for yet another illegal hit delivered by a Steelers defender, then naturally whined and cried about how unfair it all is and how he “can’t play properly” if such hits are continued to be found illegal, fineable offenses. I’m starting to wonder if anyone in the Pittsburgh organization is over the age of 8. Hey Ryan – it doesn’t matter what you think, how much you and your teammates whine like little babies or whether the world is just an unfair place. The rules say those hits are illegal. It may be dumb, but those are the rules, like em or not. If you want to stop getting flagged, fined and made an example of, why don’t you just stop hitting like that? Wow, what a novel concept!

This Week’s Five Worst Teams

1. Denver: Get a load of this – in two games against the Raiders this year, both losses, the Broncos defense has allowed 98 points and over 1,000 total yards. Worst in the league? Yep, Tim Tebow or no Tim Tebow.

2. Arizona: The Cardinals pathetic season just got worse as they lost to Carolina in a game they never even came close to leading. Again, they got terrible quarterback play and again, they had no running game. Looking at this team in relation to the past two seasons, I’m starting to wonder if Kurt Warner actually was the second coming.

3. Carolina: Hooray for the Panthers, getting John Fox one last win in Charlotte and QB Jimmy Clausen his first (and possibly only) one before they draft Stanford star Andrew Luck next year. And hooray for the Panthers also for not being No. 1 on this list for yet another week.

4. Cleveland: Well, it sure was fun while it lasted, eh Browns fans? There was a stretch earlier in the year when it looked like your team might actually be turning the corner. Then they remembered they’re the Browns, lost in consecutive weeks to the Bills and Bengals, are destined for yet another double-digit loss season and will now almost undoubtedly have to start over with a new coach next year for the fifth time since the turn of the century.

5. Cincinnati: The Bengals won a game! After 10 straight losses! Can you believe it? Interesting how it came with Terell Owens getting hurt early and Chad Ochocinco basically being benched while Cedric Benson had his best game of the season (31 carries, 150 yards, 4.8 YPA, one TD). They’re a little slow on the uptake in Cincy.

What’s Trendy

– Jason Garrett, Cowboys: Dallas is 4-2 since Garrett took over for Wade Phillips and has scored at least 27 points in all six games. They scored 27-plus once this year under Phillips. It seems they’re responding to Garrett, no?

– Donald Brown, Colts: Pretty much a complete bust since Indy took him in the first round out if UConn last year, Brown went off in last week’s huge, 34-24 win over Jacksonville. Brown’s 129 yards (on just 14 carries, a 9.2 YPA) was by far a career high and his TD was just his second of the season. With all of the injuries on the Colts offense, if they can get a consistent running game going with Brown as the lead back, watch out come playoff time.

– The Lions:
Major congratulations to the Lions, who one week after snapping their 19-game divisional losing streak, beat the Bucs in Tampa to snap a jaw-dropping, NFL record 26-game road losing streak with a 23-20, overtime win. Their last road win before Sunday? October, 2007. Amazing.

What’s Not

– Matt Hasselbeck, Seahawks: A very good career for the former Xaverian and BC product is coming to a close and if you don’t believe me, just look at the numbers. Hasselbeck has 17 turnovers this season, 10 in the past three weeks. In Sunday’s loss to the Falcons, he was 10-of-17 for just 17 yards and three picks before getting yanked. Ouch.

– The Texans: Now, instead of just losing games in humiliating fashion, they’re humiliating themselves in a different way. Linebackers Brian Cushing (who was suspended four games earlier this season for steroids) and Antonio Smith actually got into a fight with each other on the field during Sunday’s loss to Tennessee. If Houston owner Bob McNair brings coach Gary Kubiak back for yet another season, he is either stupid or just doesn’t care. This team is toxic in so many ways and something near to the top is the only thing that can save it.

– The Jets Coaching Staff:
Yes, the Jets won, ending their two game misery streak. And yes, it was a big one, on the road against a very good team. But for all his motivational hoohah and macho, braggart crap (not to mention his predilection for foot fetish home videos) Rex Ryan and his minions are lousy in-game coaches. With a 20-17 lead, three minutes left and the Steelers with just one remaining time out, the Jets called two straight pass plays, both of which were incomplete, thus stopping the clock. They got the ball back after a safety with another chance to salt the game away and of course, threw another incomplete pass, this one after Pittsburgh had burned its final TO. Two possessions, less than one minute spent. And that’s without even mentioning Braylon Edwards and LaDanian Tomlinson going out of bounds (Edwards twice) down the stretch with that lead and the clock running. It would have served the Jets right if the Steelers comeback attempt hadn’t stalled out all the way down at the 9-yard line. The fact that Sports Illustrated’s Peter King, who loses more and more credibility with each passing week, named offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer the coach of the week in his Monday column speaks hilarious volumes not only about King but about how inexplicably overrated Ryan and his staff really are.

And finally…

It would be easy to use this space to take some more shots at some of my favorite targets, like BrettFavre, who again made it all about himself last week in playing against the Bears at the last second on Monday night, got hurt again and subsequently subjected all of us to still more “will he or won’t he,” garbage primarily sponsored by his house network, ESPN. Or Redskins coach Mike Shanahan, who continues to be the biggest fraud in coaching as well as coming off as someone who has little regard or respect for his players in the wake of his handling of the Donovan McNabb benching, and who will now have five straight years of not taking his team to the playoffs. But I’ll take the high road, it being the holidays and all. Hope everyone has a wonderful holiday and thank you so very much for reading Patriots Daily!