PHILADELPHIA – If you're looking for a theme going into the first-round playoff game between the Philadelphia Eagles and the New York Giants, perhaps the horror-flick classic Dawn of the Dead applies.
"We're a little like zombies right now," Philadelphia coach Andy Reid said after his team won the NFC East even before it beat Atlanta 24-17 Sunday at Lincoln Financial Field. "We're back from the dead."
The Eagles once were 5-6 after losing five of six. Even more, franchise quarterback Donovan McNabb was lost to a season-ending ACL injury. Somehow, they flipped the season to finish with five straight wins.
The Giants reached the postseason Sunday, a day after their crucial win over Washington. They ran the ball in championship fashion behind running back Tiki Barber, who had 234 yards rushing Saturday. But like Philadelphia, the Giants similarly had been left for dead at different points. After a 6-2 start, the Giants went 2-6 over the second half, flailing about like a mischievous child caught in a lie.
Appropriately, the Atlanta-Philadelphia game was a dead issue about four minutes into the contest. That's when Dallas stunningly succumbed to Detroit, allowing the Eagles to clinch the NFC East. At that point, the Eagles quickly took out just about any starter or veteran of importance.
Philadelphia backup quarterback A.J. Feeley took over for Jeff Garcia after one series. Feeley completed 22 of 33 passes for 321 yards and three touchdowns to lead the win over a Falcons team that played most of the game without quarterback Michael Vick after he suffered a sprained ankle.
About the only drama left to the game was watching the body language of Atlanta owner Arthur Blank, who is expected to dismiss coach Jim Mora after a disappointing 7-9 finish. By cinematic standards, that made for a considerably dull event.
But when the Eagles play host to the Giants on Sunday in the first round of the playoffs, the storylines will be much more dramatic. There's the question of whether the Giants have turned the corner after an awful stretch or merely extended their misery. There also is the question of whether Barber truly is headed for retirement when the Giants' season ends.
The Eagles also have their share of compelling story lines: the improbable run by Garcia, whose career seemed dead after stops in Detroit and Cleveland, and the dramatic rebound – sparked by three straight divisional road wins – after their awful performance at Indianapolis on Nov. 26.
In fact, just making the playoffs after that 45-21 loss to the Colts was a stunning turn of events to some Eagles.
"They would have had to do some convincing," Eagles middle linebacker Jeremiah Trotter said when asked if he would have believed anyone who said the playoffs would happen after Philadelphia was 5-6.
"Every season, you're bound to have that game when you're going to get hammered and you're either going to go downhill or uphill," Eagles linebacker Dhani Jones said. "That's what happened to us with the Colts and it seemed like after that, everybody was against us. The media was on us. That's the time when you find out who's with you and who's against you.
"This may not have been like the way we breezed into the Super Bowl two years ago, but it was really telling for us. It was a matter of staying together and overcoming a lot of stuff that can kill a team's spirit."
What the Eagles have discovered since the loss to Indianapolis is a revived run defense and the most balanced offensive attack they've had in years. With the talented McNabb at quarterback, the Eagles never have been committed to the running game like they are now.
"It's something that we've had to develop in the second half of the season," Garcia said. "When you have a guy like Donovan, he opens up the playbook by doing all sorts of things with his arm. With me, it's more of the balance stuff, the West Coast game and we've done a much better job of highlighting Brian [Westbrook] as a runner."
On Sunday, the Eagles may have caught a break because they didn't have to highlight Westbrook, who came into the game with five consecutive games of 20 or more carries and a career-high 26 last Monday against Dallas. Westbrook touched the ball twice on the first series, including a 29-yard reception to help set up a field goal.
"It was like a bye, just not the way we were hoping to get one," Trotter said.
To put it another way, the game may have been a dead issue, but the Eagles were quite alive.
At least for another week.