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Win over reeling Giants puts Eagles in NFC East driver's seat

PHILADELPHIA -- They looked up at the scoreboard. Then they looked at each other in disbelief.

For several reasons, Philadelphia Eagles offensive guard Todd Herremans and center Jamaal Jackson were amazed that their team was in the process of beating the New York Giants 40-17 at Lincoln Financial Field on Sunday.

Never mind that it was the first time since 1992 that the Eagles had scored 40 or more points against their NFC East rivals. Never mind that the Giants had won the last four regular-season games the teams had played here. Never mind that the Eagles had lost to the Oakland Raiders two weeks ago and weren't particularly sharp on offense in their Week 7 Monday night victory at Washington.

"It was really surprising that we won so big because of the way that we felt out there while we were playing," Herremans said. "We left a lot of plays out there. We still had quite a few 'mentals' (mistakes) up front."

One could only imagine what the score would have been if the Eagles had actually performed at their very best.

For now, though, we'll submit this game as an example of what a team in the driver's seat of its division looks like, because the Eagles are, without question, in the driver's seat.

At 5-2, they share first place with the Dallas Cowboys, who had a lopsided win of their own, 38-17 over the Seattle Seahawks. But that was the Seahawks. The Eagles humiliated the team with which they have taken turns winning the NFC East in eight of the last nine years.

That was the No. 1 defense in the NFL that they shredded with long touchdown runs, long scoring throws, and practically every other way imaginable. That was Eli Manning, considered a league MVP candidate during a 5-0 start, who they intercepted twice and generally confused and frustrated.

Nearly a decade of history doesn't lie: If you're going to win the NFC East, the first step for either the Eagles or the Giants is to win the games against each other.

"The whole week, the coaches and (veteran) players talked about this rivalry," said Eagles rookie running back LeSean McCoy, who closed out Sunday's scoring with a 66-yard touchdown run on the second play of the fourth quarter. "I kind of knew a little about it, just being a football fan. But being here, it's bigger than what I thought."

Middle linebacker Will Witherspoon has been in the NFL for eight seasons, but has been with the Eagles for only two games after being traded from the St. Louis Rams. He, too, was familiar with the Eagles-Giants rivalry from a distance.

Sunday's victory gave him a greater appreciation for how much it means in the context of the whole season.

"To win these last couple of games has been great, in the sense that it's good to get that feeling back," said Witherspoon, who was thankful for his escape from the Rams. "But I think, as far as the whole series goes and knowing exactly how this division is, that just puts a stamp on things, too. It says, 'Hey, we're coming to work every day. We're coming to get this done. We're coming every single week to bring our A game.' "

After two weeks of mostly struggling, the Eagles' offense brought a game the Giants were unable to handle. And they did it without their primary catalyst, running back Brian Westbrook, who is recovering from a concussion he suffered against the Redskins. Donovan McNabb, who had been mostly out of synch with his receivers, threw for 240 yards and three touchdowns.

"During the game, I told him, 'You're hot; stay hot,' " Eagles offensive coordinator Marty Mornhinweg said with a smile. "That's a good coaching point, right?"

A better one was what Mornhinweg and the rest of Philadelphia's offensive coaches told the players on their side of the ball all week while preparing to deal with the Giants' zone-blitzing defense. They reminded them that the high-risk/high-reward defensive approach would lend itself to something the Eagles love to do best: Make big plays. Typical of their season, they mostly scored in four or fewer plays on Sunday, and much of that was because of their ability to capitalize on the Giants' gambling defense.

As Mornhinweg pointed out, "They take calculated risks, and it normally works big for them, so, on occasion against the Giants, it's feast or famine."

The Eagles did plenty of feasting by exploiting the wide gaps created when Giant blitzers didn't get to McNabb, who connected with DeSean Jackson on a 54-yard touchdown, or the ball-carriers (besides McCoy's touchdown dash, the Eagles also had a 41-yard scoring run by fullback Leonard Weaver on the game's third play from scrimmage).

Philly's defense does its share of blitzing, too. However, the Eagles have consistently done a good job of forcing opponents to make mistakes. That was the case against Manning, who often seemed off-balance when he set up to pass and made some ridiculously poor throws that were either too high for his receivers to grab or to the wrong spot of the secondary.

"Hands in his face, bodies up close to him, guys into his body while he's trying to throw," Witherspoon said, explaining what the Eagles were able to do to make Manning's life miserable. "When you can do that, you can affect how he throws, what he's thinking, what his thought process is just getting the ball out."

Now, the challenge is to come up with an equally effective defensive effort next Sunday night, when Tony Romo and the Cowboys come to town with sole possession of first place on the line.

With or without Westbrook, the offense also must rise to the occasion.

"I think we are a force, but we've got to play consistently," said tight end Brent Celek, who caught a 17-yard touchdown pass against the Giants. "We've got to come out every game firing like we did today, and I think if we do that we'll be good."

If you ask Herremans, the Eagles can be better than they showed against the Giants.

"When you can win and not play your best, that's a bonus," Herremans said. "It just (says something) really positive about what we have still in store. We've just got to keep getting better and take care of the little things."

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