EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. – Considering he never thought euphoria was again possible, that he never again would know the thrill of leading a playoff contender down the field for a late, big-game touchdown, that he never would be the starting quarterback of a team that actually exceeds expectations, Jeff Garcia's celebration was understandable.
With the Philadelphia Eagles' dramatic 36-22 victory over the New York Giants all but in the books, the now aging, journeyman quarterback – Donovan McNabb's desperation replacement – grabbed linebacker Jeremiah Trotter and planted a fat kiss on him.
"I'm glad I had my helmet on," Trotter said.
Garcia hardly cared. With the Eagles believed to be done last month when McNabb was lost for the season, who better to bring them back than a 36-year-old on his fourth team in four seasons who a year ago had no faith in anything?
Then, he was mired in the muck of the Detroit Lions, dragged down by a hapless franchise and wondering if football was even worth it anymore. He wondered if bad teams and losing situations were all that were left for him.
Now he is on a three-game winning streak, blowing kisses and pumping fists up and down the sideline as Philly (8-6) presses on toward the playoffs – not only in fine shape for the wild card but also, if you can believe it, visiting Dallas on Christmas for a shot at the NFC East title.
Here in the December of his career, Garcia looks like the all-energy Pro Bowler he was back in San Francisco a lifetime ago. He looks like a condemned man freed from a filthy situation in Detroit (and one almost as bad the year before in Cleveland), now savoring every last second of road wins and playoff talk.
"It's about elation," he smiled.
It's about the one last chance he never saw coming.
"I really didn't honestly believe [this was possible again]," said Garcia, whose stint as Philly's starter began with a 45-21 thumping by the Colts but since has featured three straight wins. "[In Detroit] I was starting to lose faith in football and having fun like I've been having over the last three, four weeks.
"To be back in the saddle so to speak and be able to help lead this team and do things on the field that are positive and making plays and just letting loose like I used to when I was a lot younger – it's just been one of those things. It's been a lot of fun, and a year ago I was not thinking this could happen."
Heck, a month ago no one thought this could happen. Philly was finished – losing five of six with a Swiss cheese defense and an injury-riddled offense. A season that began with such promise looked headed toward frustration with McNabb hurt and the defense incapable of tackling a running back.
The idea that Garcia could lead them out of it was, well, far-fetched.
The Eagles didn't pull off this critical game solely because of their quarterback – he was 19-of-28 for 237 yards, a touchdown and an interception. Good, but not great. But he was good enough.
And that's enough for his teammates. Most importantly Garcia is projecting the kind of confidence that makes them believe road wins are possible. That January is probable.
"With him back there we have a chance to win, and that is what we need," said running back Brian Westbrook, who scored twice for the Eagles on Sunday.
A chance was all the rest of the Eagles needed. This a different Philadelphia team from a year ago, when internal dissent ("we were a locker room divided," Westbrook said) caused the Eagles to fall apart. This time when things got tough, when injuries crippled, everyone bonded together and plotted a new course.
Garcia's best attribute thus far is avoiding major mistakes. He came into the game with eight touchdown passes and no interceptions. He was steady, consistent and calm. He seemed to have found a way to harness the emotions that were both critical and damning in his career.
Garcia lacks superior physical skill and doesn't look the part of an NFL thoroughbred. Coming out of San Jose State, he had to fight his way into the league, first proving himself in Canada before the 49ers would take a chance.
But the emotion can cut both ways and in recent seasons, it contributed to some awful performances. Sunday it looked like it could be another, when in a wild, back-and-forth fourth quarter, he got nailed for a costly 15-yard taunting penalty and then, still angry, threw a bad pick.
Then he got to the sideline and vented his anger and looked out of control. "He's a redhead," shrugged coach Andy Reid.
Only this time, with this team, he found a way to settle down. And with 6:59 remaining and the Eagles trailing 22-21, the season on the line, he took over on his own 20 and led a 12-play march down the field. He capped it with a 19-yard touchdown strike to Reggie Brown. The Eagles sealed the victory with an interception return for a touchdown on New York's ensuing possession.
Now it is on to Dallas. A division title and home playoff game at stake. A team once lost now finding its bearings at the most precious of times.
Jeff Garcia, a year after almost giving up on it all, is kissing linebackers and hugging coaches and dreaming of the postseason. It's a season of redemption in Philly, a fresh start for a thrilling finish.
"It's about having fun," Garcia smiled, a bit in disbelief himself.