EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. - The best play in football, Donovan McNabb said yesterday, is the kneel-down.

Most exciting? Well, no.

McNabb is more of a results-oriented guy, though, and it's kinda hard to argue with No. 5 in that context. Especially when the kneel-down sends the Eagles to the NFC Championship Game for the first time in 4 years, out to McNabb's offseason home in Arizona, for a match between the fourth-seeded Cardinals and the sixth-seeded Eagles that will send the winner to Super Bowl XLIII.

Maybe McNabb wanted to call Arizona, to alert a housekeeper to start getting the casa ready, when McNabb was run out of bounds and then decided to pick up the sideline phone at the Giants' bench, incurring a 15-yard penalty with 2 minutes and 59 seconds remaining, the result decided. McNabb said afterward he didn't say anything, to whichever Giants coach presumably was on the other end of the line. There wasn't a lot to say to the Giants, at that point.

Let's go over it again: One win from Super Bowl XLIII. I-I-I. As in, "Ay-yi-yi, can you believe this?"

"Well, we've got another week of work . . . This is something that is storybook," McNabb said, when asked to reflect on the fact that many people felt, less than 2 months ago, that his era of Eagles football was over, along with that of Andy Reid, and older veterans such as Jon Runyan, Tra Thomas and Brian Dawkins.

Of course, getting the Eagles to talk about the Super Bowl this week is going to be about as hard as getting Reid to come up with a descriptive phrase stronger than "heckuva." Their attention will be focused on the Cardinals, who have authored their own improbable postseason run, winning two playoff games in the same year for the first time in franchise history.

Here's a hunch that the citizenry of Eagles Nation won't feel so constrained, after yesterday's shocking, 23-11 NFC divisional-round victory over the host New York Giants, in which the Eagles dominated the second half in ending the reign of the defending Super Bowl champions. The "this is our year" talk, in the wake of the Phils' ending of the city's 25-year championship jinx, is going to dominate discussion.

And who is to say, right now, that it isn't? No team had ever beaten the Giants twice in the same season at Giants Stadium before yesterday, and no NFC sixth seed had ever beaten the top seed, in nine previous such matchups.

Jim Johnson, walking with a cane because of a bad back, watched from on high in the press box as his defense stopped the Giants twice on fourth-and-short in the fourth quarter; the Birds' defense would have pitched a second-half shutout if not for a tipped-pass turnover that set up a field goal.

"People say every once in a while that I like to throw the ball, coach on the offensive side," Reid said. "I know that you win games on defense in the National Football League. If you don't play good defense, you're going to struggle. I guess I'm partial - I've got the best defensive coordinator in the National Football League. His guys believe in him, in the things he does. He's kept it fresh for 'em, even though he's 100 years old [67, actually]."

Johnson said all the Joe Paterno coaching-from-the-box comparisons were an honor. He also seemed honored to be running a unit that set up a touchdown with one of the three turnovers it forced, and held Eli Manning to a 40.7 passer rating, while allowing only three field goals.

"I think we've come up with some big plays," in becoming a lights-out defense over the second half of the season and the playoffs, Johnson said. "Just like today - those fourth-down plays were big plays . . . It's a very good defense . . . they're playing with a very aggressive attitude, and I think there's a lot of guys contributing."

There will be more than enough time to talk about such things before next Sunday, but let's get this one in early: As good as Kurt Warner has been in guiding the Cards past Atlanta and Carolina, he hasn't faced a playoff defense like this one, which picked Warner off three times in the Eagles' 48-20 victory over the Cards at the Linc back on Thanksgiving night.

Oddly enough, that was the game that began this amazing journey from 5-5-1, with a benched franchise quarterback, to the NFL's version of the Final Four.

"These guys never wavered, they never questioned each other," Reid said. "When someone was down, they picked them up, and played."

This will be the fifth and most improbable trip with the Eagles to the NFC title game for Reid, Johnson, six position coaches and a half-dozen players - McNabb, kicker David Akers, running back Correll Buckhalter, free safety Dawkins, and offensive tackles Runyan and Thomas.

"It's hard for me to look back and say which one team is better than the other, but I can tell you that this team is the one with the most ups and downs throughout the year to make it," Dawkins said. "We've had to do a lot of jelling and coming together and putting our hands over our ears when it comes to what is going on outside, to be able to get where we are."

Yesterday, they were being outgained 94 yards to 11 at one point in the second quarter - while leading, 7-5. The offense was not quite playing at the defense's level right then, but somehow the offensive tide shifted on a drive for a 25-yard Akers' field goal at the end of the first half, which gave the Birds a 10-8 lead.

" 'Struggling' is being kind," offensive coordinator Marty Mornhinweg said, when asked about the early going. "That was tough sledding early . . . those last 2 minutes of the half, when we moved the ball, scored a field goal, got a little mojo going into the locker room - that momentum's big, in these types of games. Sometimes you can turn it, sometimes you can't. I thought we kept up that momentum, really, throughout the rest of the football game."

They trailed again only briefly, after Giants defensive tackle Fred Robbins intercepted a blocked McNabb pass on the first drive of the third quarter, setting up a 36-yard field goal from John Carney, who also missed from 46 and 47. The Eagles took the lead for good on Akers' 35-yarder with 7:45 left in the third; their defense was playing so well, the Birds' only true touchdown drive of the day, which ended in a 1-yard McNabb pass to Brent Celek on the first play of the fourth quarter, gave them a nine-point lead that seemed much larger.

Ultimately, the game might have turned on the two fourth downs Giants coach Tom Coughlin went for and didn't get, the second one helping set up the Akers' 20-yarder that put the game away, with 3:58 left.

With 12:39 left, the Giants challenged where Derrick Ward was judged down, after gaining 2 yards on third-and-3. They lost the challenge (you knew right then it was the Eagles' day - when did that ever happen to a Birds opponent?) and elected to try a Manning sneak on fourth-and-less-than-1 from New York's 44. Manning leaned forward, needing only inches, but wasn't able to actually move forward - defensive tackles Mike Patterson and Brodrick Bunkley had clogged the middle and Manning's vaunted interior line got no push.

"I knew I was going to get the double-team. I just hoped to get low and push as hard as I can, hopefully shut down one of those lanes Eli was going to try to get through," Bunkley said afterward.

"Everybody stayed down low; don't let 'em get underneath you, keep on pushing," Patterson said.

After a Sav Rocca punt, the Giants started moving and again faced fourth down, with 2 yards to go, from their 47. This time Manning handed off to Brandon Jacobs, New York's most effective weapon, who finished the day with 92 yards on 19 carries. This time, though, Jacobs got maybe a yard. He did not get the first down.

"Everybody just held their ground, the linebackers were able to get back there [in the backfield]," Patterson said. "It's exciting for a defense."

The Eagles had to figure the Giants weren't going to sneak again, with 2 yards needed, and the sneak already having been snuffed.

"I saw Jacobs get the ball, and I just tried my best to fill in the gap," Bunkley said. "You just got to read keys - I look at eyes, the offensive linemen, you kind of get a clue from that. Look in the running back's eyes, you kind of get a clue from that."

Under the pile, Bunkley said he couldn't see the sticks, but he knew what they would show.

"I felt [Jacobs] on my back. I knew they didn't get any movement," he said.

"It was hard to see much [from the sideline]," Reid said. "it looked like a mosh pit in there, but we got penetration."

Andy Reid knows from mosh pits? Hey, if he wins two more games this season, Big Red can crowd-surf down Broad Street.

"It's great to be back in the NFC Championship Game," Reid said.

And it would be even greater to win it. *

For more Eagles coverage and opinion, read the Daily News' Eagles blog, Eagletarian, at www.eagletarian.com.