The November 24th, 1996 matchup between the Arizona Cardinals and Philadelphia Eagles was one of the most exciting games in Eagle history, featuring thrilling special teams play, two improbable comebacks, and 37 points scored in the last 11 minutes of the game.
The Eagles came into the game 7-4, but after a scorching start under coach Ray Rhodes and Ricky Watters they had lost their last two contests. The Cardinals had won two in a row and with a 5-6 record were trying to make a late push towards the playoffs.
The first three quarters were fairly uneventful. Ricky Watters scored a TD for the Eagles in the first quarter, rookie Leeland McElroy had answered for the Cards in the 2nd, and otherwise Gary Anderson and Kevin Butler exchanged field goals. The Cards held a 16-13 lead entering the 4th, but then Boomer Esiason hit Pat Carter with a 6-yard pass to give the Cards a 22-13 lead with 10:58 left. Just over two minutes later, Ricky Watters went around right end from 4 yards out to pull the Eagles within 2.
Boomer Esiason then led the Cardinals on a methodical drive down the field and hit Larry Centers (remember how awesome that guy was on such terrible teams?) for a 4 yard score to give the Cardinals a comfortable 29-20 lead with 2:45 left in the game. Then things got crazy. Derrick Witherspoon (below right) returned the ensuing kickoff 95 yards to the house to pull the Eagles within 2. The Birds then attempted an onside kick. It went out of bounds, but fortunately for them one of their players was onsides. Due to a strange quirk in the NFL rulebook, it meant they got to kick again. This time the ball bounced out of the hands of the Cards Anthony Edwards and was scooped up by Johnny Thomas of the Eagles. He would have scored a TD on it, but NFL rules don’t allow recovered onsides kicks to be returned (boo! Lame rule.) The Eagles then moved into field goal range while running out the clock. The Cards answered by burning all 3 of their timeouts. Finally, Gary Anderson nailed a 32 yarder with 52 seconds left to give the Eagles a 30-29 lead.
The Cardinals got the ball back on the 35-yard line and Boomer Esiason went to work. With no timeouts remaining, he kept hitting receivers along the sidelines, confounding Eagles cornerbacks Troy Vincent and Bobby Taylor. Finally, with 14 seconds left, he hit Marcus Dowdell from 24 yards out to give the Cardinals the win. It was one of Dowdell’s 3 career TDs. Esiason had led the team 65-yards down the field in 38 seconds with no timeouts left. It was a total collapse by Philly’s secondary. Boomer ended up throwing for 367 yards that day, 180 of them in the 4th quarter.
Ray Rhodes was crushed, saying he was at “an all-time low.” The defense took out their frustration on the Giants the next week, allowing an incredible 121 yards of total offense to New York. They would rally to finish the season 10-6, and lose to the Niners 14-0 in the playoffs. The Cardinals would only win one more game all season.
RELATED: Eric Allen’s incredible INT return against Boomer Esiason, one of the most thrilling plays in Eagle history.
With the Eagles taking on the Jets on Sunday, it is interesting to note that the Birds are 8-0 all time against the Jets. That doesn’t mean there haven’t been some great games between these two teams however. Probably the greatest came in 1993, in yet another Miracle at the Meadowlands.
The two teams both entered that game in Week 4 at the Meadowlands ready to make a statement. The Eagles were 3-0 and according to the New York Times, looked like a “sure fire playoff contender”. The Jets were 2-1 and looking to compete with the mighty Bills in the AFC East. It was the game of the week, complete with the “A-Team” of John Madden and Pat Summerall announcing. (Here is a pretty fun look at the rosters of the two teams in this matchups piece in the 1993 Inquirer. Lots of guys you had probably forgotten about on the Jets, like Blair Thomas, Johnny Johnson, and Rob Moore.)
The game started out disastrously for the Eagles. Boomer Esiason, the Jets quarterback, unloaded two TDs early to Johnny Mitchell and one to James Thronton. The Eagles found themselves in a 21-0 hole. ANd then things got worse. Randall Cunningham broke his fibula early in the 2nd quarter, and the Eagles had to insert Bubby Brister. Brister actually played well, and the Eagles got back into the game on an 8 yard TD rush from Herschel Walker and a 10-yard TD pass to Mark Bavaro. The score at the half was 21-14 Jets.
In the 3rd quarter, Johnny Mitchell scored his 3rd TD of the game, and the Jets took a 28-14 lead. But Bubby Brister wasn’t done. He threw an 11 yard TD pass to Calvin Williams, then in the 4th Vaughn Hebron tied it with a one yard plunge. But Brister was called for intentional grounding in the end zone a few minutes later, and the Jets took a 30-28 lead. They were then driving for what would be the winning TD when fate intervened. Boomer Esiason tried to complete a pass to WR Chris Burkett. Eric Allen jumped in front of it, and the rest is history, and one of the greatest plays in Philadelphia Eagles history.
It was to be the last hurrah for the Eagles that season. It turned out that Randall was done for the year, and while Bubby filled in admirably, he then got hurt. That’s when the wheels came off. In stepped Ken O’Brien, and the team collapsed. Between Brister and O’Brien, the team lost their next 6 games, and 8 of their next 9. They righted the ship in December, winning their last 3, but by then it was too late. The Eagles finished 8-8, another year of “What might have been” had Randall not gotten hurt. The Jets went 8-8 as well.