What a blown opportunity.
And what a sobering revelation.
To play a game like the Eagles played last night against the going-nowhere/Joe Webb-quarterbacked Minnesota Vikings was to disparage everything they had accomplished so far in winning the NFC East. It was the kind of game that Andy Reid-coach teams have not tended to play over the years. It was, like many things this season, new ground.
That the 24-14 loss killed their chances of getting a bye in the first round of the playoffs is obvious. That Michael Vick continues to take a physical beating, and has gone through another stretch of subpar play as a result of that beating, is also plain. Those will be the main topics of conversation as the Eagles begin to ponder their post-season fate.
But the defense is the real issue.
No one would say this out loud, to be sure. There is a chance that none of them even thought it. But the task seemed obvious. The Eagles had 2 weeks to prove to us, and maybe to themselves, that their's can be a championship defense. Two weeks.
Before last night's trip to the tightrope -- now a weekly occurrence for the Eagles, whatever day is game day -- that was the subtext of Eagles-Vikings at Lincoln Financial Field. It was buried in snow and conversation about the postponement of the game but, beneath everything that had been piled so high and deep, there was this defense and there were the questions that have surrounded it all season, and there was Joe Webb quarterbacking last night and Stephen McGee likely quarterbacking on Sunday for Dallas.
Webb and McGee are lower-echelon quarterbacks. They are the kinds of players who should have been able to give this defense an opportunity to establish something on the eve of the post-season, to build a foundation. They had Jamar Chaney playing well at middle linebacker in place of the injured Stewart Bradley, and they had the just-signed Derrick Burgess dressed for the first time in an attempt to inject some life into the four-man pass rush.
They had options. They had a chance to improve upon a record of allowing more than 24 points per game. And, well, that's gone.
It's worse than that, though. There was still a chance to salvage something and give the team a chance to recover from three atrocious quarters -- but that didn't happen, either.
With 8:23 left in the fourth quarter, with the Vikings holding a 17-14 lead, here was the situation: Vikings ball, third-and-11 on the Eagles' 47-yard line. This was one of those moments that you underline in your notebook. This is one of the places where you wondered, if the Eagles really hoped to make some kind of noise in January, didn't their defense have to get a stop.
Webb called signals. The Eagles' moved frantically on their side of the ball, then called timeout in an obvious attempt to get settled. Coming out of the timeout, with Webb in the shotgun, the Eagles' strategy became clear: a corner blitz from Webb's right side, with Joselio Hanson bearing down on the young, unpolished quarterback.
But he didn't get there. Instead, Webb completed a 19-yard pass over the middle to Percy Harvin, with Chaney not quite there in coverage.
And we all continue to wonder, as we have all season.
On the next play, Vikings running back Adrian Peterson broke a run for 27 yards. On the next play, the Eagles' defense was penalized for having 12 men on the field. On the next play, the Vikings scored the touchdown that made it 24-14 on a 1-yard run by Peterson.
Underlined in the notebook, then.
And now, the Eagles find themselves in the oddest position. Logic suggests they should rest everybody they can rest on Sunday -- and they probably will do just that. But how can they go into the playoffs with this being the last picture of real football from their starters?
Because, yes, it was that bad.