Brian Westbrook, retired running back and Philadelphia's second-favorite Brian, led the Eagles onto the field Monday night. Brian Dawkins, future Hall of Fame safety and Philly's favorite Brian, was by his side. So was Donovan McNabb, who is not Philadelphia's favorite anything but (like Dawkins) was safely wrapped in a boo-deflecting Westbrook jersey.
Westbrook was the Eagles' honorary captain. The Eagles enshrined the running back in their Hall of Fame at halftime. Dawkins and McNabb were merely Westbrook's entourage. The Eagles greats were reminders of Eagles-Giants games past, when the whole NFC hung in the balance on frigid nights as Westbrook, McNabb and Dawkins dueled Eli Manning, Michael Strahan and other Giants stars of the recent past and sputtering present in battles that are still talked about with reverence in sports bars up and down the New Jersey Turnpike corridor.
Where have you gone, Brian Westbrook? A conference turns its lonely eyes to you. The Eagles and Giants may still be the class of the NFC East—the Redskins and Cowboys have zero healthy impact players to rub together—but NFC East rivalries just aren't what they used to be.
The Eagles beat the Giants 27-7 on Monday night. The .500 Eagles—the team that spawned a thousand punchlines while playing their punchless early-season opponents, the team whose quarterback coughed up three interceptions in its most emphatic, important victory of the year so far—are in first place in a proud, historic division.
That's sad. The NFC East is ugly.
"A win's a win," Sam Bradford said after the game. "We're taking things week by week, and our goal was to get out of here with a win, and that's what we did tonight."
The first-place Eagles still talk like a team in crisis mode, even after back-to-back lopsided victories. And no wonder: They are just two weeks removed from speculation that their head coach would take the first train out of Philly headed for Attractive College Opportunity to Be Determined Later. And their offense still doesn't really have its act together.
Bradford threw three interceptions. No Eagles receiver was in the vicinity of two of them: pinpoint deep passes to Giants defenders Jayron Holsey and Brandon Meriweather. A third pick, by Landon Collins in the end zone, came on an under-thrown pass to a well-covered receiver.
"We had some miscommunication today on a couple of routes where the quarterback and the receiver weren't on the same page," Chip Kelly said. "We have to clean that up."
"We can't continue to do that against really good football teams," Kelly added. "We did it and got away with it today."
Even Bradford's best throws came with caveats: Riley Cooper had to slow down to haul in an under-thrown 32-yard touchdown pass, and Cooper injured himself briefly while slowing down to retrieve a 43-yarder.
"I let the ball go a little short," Bradford said. "[Cooper] did a good job of staying with it and making that play."
Bradford's overall assessment of his own performance was blunt.
"It's just inconsistent: missing throws," he said. "There was some good; there was some bad. But I know for us to be where we want to be, I have to play better."
So the Bradford experiment is still on the Bunsen burner.
The Giants, coming off three weeks of mostly mistake-free football that erased an early-season storyline of fourth-quarter bewilderment, had a chance to make their own case as the class of the NFC East. Their first drive, a precision no-huddle march down the field for an Odell Beckham Jr. touchdown, suggested that they intended to seize complete control of the NFC East crown, such as it is these days.
Then came the mistakes. A flagrant body-slamming-the-quarterback penalty by Damontre Moore allowed the Eagles to get some traction with their offense and led to Cooper's touchdown.
A few drives later, the Giants tried one of those sideline pick plays that the Patriots have made fashionable: One receiver runs interference while another rolls up the sideline, like basketball players at the top of the key. But Rueben Randle slipped while trying to impersonate Karl Malone, and Manning waited too long before tossing a pass to Dwayne Harris. Nolan Carroll knifed past Randle for an easy pick-six.
A promising Giants drive ended when Malcolm Jenkins poked the ball from Rashad Jennings' arms at the end of a screen pass. DeMeco Ryans pounced on the fumble for the Eagles. Bradford promptly returned the favor with one of his "miscommunication" interceptions.
An Eagles drive stalled when a snap whizzed past Bradford's head for an 18-yard loss. The next Giants "drive" featured two short passes that were nearly intercepted by Eagles linemen, followed by a punt.
Another Eagles drive ended with Bradford bouncing a pass to a wide-open Jordan Matthews. The Giants' response? A sack, a dumb intentional-grounding foul by Manning—he tried to bowl the ball to his receiver—and another shanked Brad Wing punt to spark an Eagles field-goal drive near the end of the first half.
"I think our defense did a really good job with their response after we turned it over," Kelly said.
The defense certainly did, but it also had a lot of practice.
After halftime: Cooper caught a bomb, then Jordan Matthews fumbled while trying to make too much happen at the end of a catch. A Giants defensive stop was negated by a running-into-the-kicker penalty, and the Eagles mounted an impressive drive that ended with a DeMarco Murray touchdown. Manning's second intentional grounding penalty of the game gave the Eagles great field position, but Bradford threw his second miscommunication pick.
Even the officiating wasn't up to snuff, though NFL officiating rarely is these days.
Flags were dropped and picked up without explanation. Balls were suddenly re-spotted after the offense was already set. When referee Carl Cheffers asked repeatedly for the game clock to be changed from six to seven seconds before halftime, the clock operator—Bugs Bunny, presumably—set the time to 7:06.
Seven more minutes of NFC East football? No, thank you.
The Eagles defense played well, and the Giants made three mistakes for every two Eagles mistakes. The Eagles slowly pulled away despite themselves. They weren't the bumbling assemblage of missed assignments and predictable plays we saw a few weeks ago.
But they weren't the 2003-04 Eagles of Westbrook, Dawkins and McNabb, either. They were a decent team, perhaps one that is finally starting to gel, dominating a weak opponent. They were not a great team affirming that all of their early-season woes are in the past.
"We've got to learn from the things that we did well tonight," said Murray, who finished with 109 yards and a touchdown (his first 100-yard game of the year). "And there were a couple of things that we didn't do so good. We have to come in tomorrow, correct them and go from there."
It was a long way from the glory days, when Westbrook's Eagles were always in the NFC Championship Game until the Giants pushed past them on their way to the Super Bowl. Unlike Monday night's turnover fest, those games were epic.
Or were they?
McNabb under-threw his share of passes and bounced some balls to wide-open receivers. Dawkins and Westbrook's legendary Eagles heroics are remembered very differently by Giants fans. Every great comeback by one of these teams was a maddening collapse by the other. Going back further in time, the legendary plays of this rivalry—including the Miracle at the Meadowlands itself—mixed greatness with incompetence.
The Eagles are an ugly first-place team right now. But they may be coming together. The Giants, meanwhile, have a habit of lingering in the playoff picture despite nights like they suffered through Monday. Maybe when the Eagles and Giants meet in Week 17, it will be the kind of old-fashioned battle that made Westbrook a legend and Manning a champion.
For now, we have to settle for the NFC East we have—interceptions, miscommunications and all.
Mike Tanier covers the NFL for Bleacher Report.