PHILADELPHIA (Dec. 4, 2006) -- Through tough times in Cleveland and Detroit, Jeff Garcia wondered if he'd ever be a significant contributor in the NFL again.
A three-time Pro Bowl quarterback when he was guiding San Francisco to playoff berths, Garcia found out on Monday Night Football just how important he is to the Philadelphia Eagles -- as important as Donovan McNabb.
Garcia played like vintage McNabb in leading the Eagles past the Carolina Panthers 27-24. And if the 36-year-old veteran guides them into the playoffs -- at 6-6 they are tied for the NFC wild-card spots -- Garcia just might make Philadelphia forget about ol' Donovan, at least for a bit.
"It's been a while since I felt this well about a game, the way we played," Garcia said after throwing for 312 yards and three touchdowns. "We never gave up, scratched and clawed for every inch out there."
Brian Dawkins' 38-yard interception return set up David Akers' decisive 25-yard field goal with 3:13 to go. After Garcia struggled early, he was nearly unstoppable, using his arm and his legs to offset Carolina's dangerous pass rush.
"We have not lost focus of what our goal is -- to be a playoff team," he said. "Nobody has been discouraged, nobody has hung their head, it's a really positive atmosphere in the locker room considering what we've gone through over the last two months. This is a great way to come together; I think we can put some things together."
Garcia, who replaced the injured McNabb (torn right knee ligament) two weeks ago and lost twice, had TD passes of 8 yards to Brian Westbrook, 30 to Donte' Stallworth and 40 to Reggie Brown. When Lito Sheppard picked off a fade pass to Keyshawn Johnson with 25 seconds left, the Eagles were back in the playoff chase, tied with Carolina, Atlanta and the New York Giants.
One of the great benefits of life in the NFC is that a .500 record makes you a contender.
"It's a crazy year," Eagles coach Andy Reid said. "Anything's possible."
Garcia has thrown for six TDs and no interceptions since taking over for McNabb.
Jake Delhomme almost matched Garcia until the two late picks. He threw for 269 yards and TDs of 9 yards to Steve Smith, 1 to Johnson and 35 to DeAngelo Williams.
But the late interceptions ruined his night and continued the inconsistency that has marked the Panthers' season. They lost two, won four straight, lost two more, won two and now have dropped two in a row again.
"We're 6-6. We're average right now," Delhomme said.
"It will test our character," Panthers coach John Fox said. "We have four games left and we're fortunate we have four.
"We made some improvement offensively. The turnovers were a key and they made some big plays on defense, particularly that last one."
That was by Sheppard, who has five interceptions in nine games.
"We knew it was win or go home," he said. "Even though we had four games left, if we didn't win, basically we were out of it."
Johnson was livid that Sheppard wasn't flagged on the play.
"I feel like I was pushed and grabbed," he said. "The throw was fine. The guy pushed me."
Down 7-0, Stallworth made a stunning one-handed grab down the left sideline over rookie cornerback Richard Marshall and sped to a 51-yard gain, surpassing Philadelphia's total offense in the entire first quarter.
Garcia hit Westbrook cutting across the middle to tie it at 7 with 2:12 left in the second period.
But Carolina, despite committing penalties for offensive pass interference (Johnson) and grounding (Delhomme), made two big plays on a weird 78-yard drive capped by Johnson's 1-yard TD reception just 4 seconds from the end of the half. Johnson caught a 27-yarder, then Smith outleapt Michael Lewis, who also missed the tackle as Smith picked up 38 yards to the Philadelphia 17. Lewis broke his nose on the play.
Smith forced a pass interference call in the end zone on Sheldon Brown on the next play, then Delhomme lofted a pass into the right corner of the end zone for the 6-foot-4 Johnson. At 5-10, safety Quintin Mikell had no chance to stop the touchdown for a 14-7 Panthers lead.
That go-ahead march took 50 seconds.
The nimble Garcia kept several plays alive early in the third quarter by scrambling away from the rush some more. Most notably, he found Stallworth down the right side for a 30-yard TD to tie it midway through the quarter.
By now, the sputtering offenses had found their rhythm, and Carolina moved 71 yards on eight plays to take a 21-14 edge. Delhomme somehow spotted Williams in a crowd on a left screen and the rookie weaved through four Eagles for a 35-yard TD.
A roughing-the-passer call and Westbrook's 20-yard run keyed Philly's 63-yard drive to David Akers' 28-yard field goal early in the fourth quarter. But John Kasay answered with a 45-yarder, pushing the lead back to seven.
Garcia responded with two perfect throws. First he led Westbrook perfectly as the running back beat linebacker James Anderson in a mismatch for a 29-yard gain. Then he found Reggie Brown for the 40-yard score that made it 24-24.
Notes: Johnson now has 801 career receptions. ... Stallworth finished with 111 yards on four receptions, while Brown had 79 on five. Carolina's Williams, substituting for injured DeShaun Foster (elbow), caught seven passes for 101 and rushed for 74 yards. ... The Panthers have lost four games by four points or less this year. ... In addition to Lewis' broken nose and concussion, the Eagles lost linebacker Jason Short with a sprained knee. Carolina CB Ken Lucas hurt his thigh and FB Brad Hoover strained his neck.