PHILADELPHIA — The bus that will depart the Linc and travel north on the New Jersey Turnpike as darkness descends on Sunday will either carry mushrooming hope and unyielding belief back to Exit 16W … or be filled with regret over another lost season.
With the desperate defending Super Bowl champion Eagles and their rowdy fans waiting for them in ambush, the pluck stops here for the New York Football Giants:
Win your third straight and close to within two games of the 6-5 Cowboys and 6-5 Redskins in the NFL Least and leave your recent tormentors in a state of raging turmoil.
Lose your eighth game and your impossible dream of running the table to the playoffs.
Fly, Giants, fly.
Die, Giants, die.
So speak now with your shoulder pads or forever hold your season.
The 4-6 Eagles are in crisis, and Saquon Barkley is the wrong back at the wrong time for them to confront. Ezekiel Elliott dominated the Eagles two weeks ago, and Mark Ingram and Alvin Kamara piled on last week. Barkley ran for 130 yards and added nine receptions for 99 yards in the first meeting. His 142 rushing yards against the Buccaneers prompted Eagles defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz to note the shift to a power-running philosophy by Giants coach Pat Shumur.
“Quite honestly,” Schwartz said, “that’s what I would do against us right now.”
Except that the Eagles were so battered in their secondary that they were forced to use receivers as defensive backs at Friday’s practice, and a laser focus on Barkley could compel Manning to air it out — as long as his improved offensive line can keep him upright this time and not under siege.
Once more with feeling, perhaps:
Fly, Eli, fly.
Regime change brought the promise of the restoration of Giants Pride, one last hurrah for Manning, engineering at age 37 an explosive offense with a generational rookie running back and healthy, happy and maturing $95 million man Odell Beckham Jr.
Then the season started, and the Giants looked trapped in a time warp in a modern NFL — when reaching 30 points was becoming the rule rather than the exception, and Manning heard it from the boobirds, and Giants fans grew horrified that Sam Darnold was answering the prayers of Jets fans instead of their own, and Ereck Flowers returned as a pariah, and Beckham had his Lil Wayne sit down …
And then 1-7 became 3-7 — hold the Canyon of Heroes parade — and no one seemed to want to win the NFC Least, and here stand the Giants, with this unexpected second chance to kill two birds with one Big Blue stone.
The Giants have either found themselves and begun representing the franchise and representing the city the way they are expected to, or the 49ers and Bucs were nothing more than timely gifts from the football gods — and two little, too late.
Shurmur has steadied the ship post-bye, and Manning (five touchdowns, zero interceptions the past two weeks) is no longer Mann overboard, and the clamoring for Kyle Lauletta has ceased.
Barkley indeed appears touched by the hand of God, and the Giants’ offense suddenly looks touched by the hand of Saquon Barkley.
“He looks like he’s a mixture of Walter Payton and Barry Sanders all in one body,” Fox Sports analyst Michael Vick told The Post. “It’s gonna be scary the day that they put an offensive line in front of him, a la the Dallas Cowboys offensive line.”
In the meantime, right guard Jamon Brown has given the much-maligned offensive line swagger while delivering blunt-force trauma to the opposition, returner Corey Coleman has helped provide Manning with better field position, and Beckham is catching TD passes again — all good things on days when your defense forgets how to tackle and cover.
“Speed kills in the National Football League,” Vick said. “Odell has speed, and he has the heart to match.”
Barkley rushing 27 times against the Bucs might seem like an extinct philosophy in an NFL that just gave us Rams 54, Chiefs 51, but he makes life less stressful on Manning. He also helps keep a defense lacking a pass rush rested on the sidelines against a Carson Wentz, who misses 2017 offensive coordinator Frank Reich.
There is more pressure here on the Eagles. They have learned it is much easier being The Hunter than it is being The Hunted. The Giants are 5¹/₂-point underdogs. They waved the white flag when they dispatched Damon “Snacks” Harrison and Eli Apple for draft assets.
If the 2017 Eagles were “Rocky,” the 2018 Eagles have been Buster Douglas after KO’ing Mike Tyson to win the heavyweight title. The 2018 Eagles haven’t splintered the way Ben McAdoo’s 2017 Giants did, but they haven’t handled adversity as well as Shurmur’s 2018 Giants have to this point.
The bus ride that will take the Giants from the Linc back to 1925 Giants Drive covers 96 miles. It will seem interminable if the bus is carrying back a 3-8 team.
The pluck stops here.