An early bounce propelled the Philadelphia Eagles into the playoffs with a much-needed, momentum-building victory.
In one defining play 41 seconds into the game, defensive end Mike Mamula registered a sack, forced a fumble, recovered it and returned it for a touchdown as the Philadelphia Eagles defeated the Arizona Cardinals, 29-19, Sunday.
The Eagles (10-6), who had lost four of six games, will travel to San Francisco on Sunday for a wild-card playoff game against the 49ers, the team Ray Rhodes left to become Philadelphia's coach two years ago.
"It doesn't matter who we play," said Rhodes, a long-time defensive assistant for San Francisco.
Mamula ignited a defense that had a touchdown, an interception, four sacks and limited the Cardinal offense, ranked eighth in the NFL, to 229 yards.
On the game's second play, he outmaneuvered Pro Bowl tackle Lomas Brown and sacked quarterback Kent Graham, who fumbled. Mamula retrieved the ball on one bounce and sauntered four yards for a touchdown.
"It was an obvious run down, but with the backfield setup, I kind of thought it was a pass," Mamula said. "I took a chance. When I swiped the ball, I didn't know whether or not it was a fumble."
The Cardinals (7-9) didn't share Mamula's uncertainty. They insisted Graham was in the act of throwing when he lost the ball, and the play should have been ruled an incomplete pass.
"I didn't see the guy coming, but I definitely felt my arm was going forward," Graham said. "I was shocked when the official called it a fumble and a touchdown."
The Cardinals didn't recover from that shock until the fourth quarter, when Boomer Esiason, who replaced Graham in the second half, directed Arizona's offense to its only touchdown.
Arizona, which trailed, 29-12, after Esiason's 22-yard touchdown pass to Leland McElroy, made it even closer on Aeneas Williams' 65-yard interception return for a touchdown, but the Eagles' defense held.
"Mike Mamula started it off by coming right out of the box with one big play," said fellow defensive end William Fuller, who had three sacks. "It set the tempo for the game."
The Eagles controlled both sides of the ball throughout the first half and had a 23-3 lead at halftime.