On Monday morning, the Eagles will clear out their lockers and begin the offseason sooner than any anticipated. A team that started December among the league's top contenders won't even have the chance to play in January.
On Thanksgiving night, with Philadelphia experiencing the euphoric blend of tryptophan and an Eagles victory, Chip Kelly appreciated that the Eagles would play "meaningful December football."
He did not talk about the postseason or whether that Nov. 26 blowout of the Dallas Cowboys gave the Eagles an edge in the division. Kelly focused on December. If they succeeded in December, they would play in January.
December is nearly finished, and the Eagles have gone 0-for-the-month. Three consecutive losses spoiled the season and left the Thanksgiving excitement as an afterthought. The collapse could become a part of Philadelphia lore.
The 2014 season ends Sunday against the New York Giants with the Eagles out of playoff contention. Meaningful December football somehow finishes with a meaningless finale.
"This has been a very rough few weeks here," center Jason Kelce said. "It's devastating understanding at one point we were 9-3 and one of the top teams in the NFL, and then all the sudden, in just a matter of three weeks, we're not even going [to the playoffs] now. Extremely frustrating three weeks."
In the NFL's week-to-week existence, the reality of an unfulfilled season did not sink in to most players until time expired last Saturday in a confounding loss at Washington. Almost all agreed that the culprits were problems that plagued the Eagles all season - specifically their league-leading 35 turnovers. And even though a small possibility of making the playoffs remained until Dallas won last Sunday, the Eagles knew they had wasted their opportunity.
"It really didn't come down to watching games on Sunday," wide receiver Jeremy Maclin said. "It came down to how we performed the last three weeks."
It started Dec. 7, when the Eagles hosted the Seattle Seahawks. The Eagles were one-point favorites against the defending Super Bowl champions, but they appeared overmatched against Seattle's defense. Their 139 offensive yards were the worst of the Kelly era. The Eagles twice turned the ball over: a LeSean McCoy fumble to begin the second half and a costly Mark Sanchez interception in the fourth quarter.
After the 24-14 loss, Kelly focused on the NFC East. The Eagles would close the season against three division foes, and a win against Dallas on Dec. 14 would put a division title within reach.
"There were some good teams in [the losing streak], but there were opportunities to definitely at least take two of those games," Kelce said. "Seattle was a tough one for us."
Although the Eagles fell behind by 21 points in the first half against the Cowboys, they came back in the third quarter to take a 24-21 lead. This was the moment some players referenced, in hindsight, when the season started to slip.
"We're up, 24-21, with all the momentum in the world," linebacker Emmanuel Acho said. "You always assume it's going to turn [in the Eagles' favor]."
The momentum didn't last long. Dallas drove 78 yards on eight plays to take the lead. Then Sanchez threw his first of two interceptions. The Cowboys drove for a quick score. The three-point lead turned into an 11-point deficit in less than seven minutes. The Cowboys took over the NFC East with the 38-27 victory, and the Eagles needed to win and get some help.
Most of the hope vanished after the 27-24 loss to the Redskins, which featured a collection of errors. The Eagles twice turned the ball over, had 102 penalty yards, and missed two field goals. They didn't play like a playoff team, and those hopes all but vanished against one of the worst teams in the NFL.
"You don't feel it slipping away until the clock hits zero in that game and you know it's completely out of your control whether or not you're in," guard Evan Mathis said. "There was still a glimmer of hope at that point in time, but . . . you do feel it slipping away and regret that we didn't take care of business the way we should have."
Acho said it was as if the Eagles blinked and they went from 9-3 to 9-6. They held second-half leads in their last two games, but made fourth-quarter mistakes both times.
"I feel like, within the past three weeks, it's probably a total of seven plays that changed our outcome between all three games," Kendricks said.
Kendricks would not say which plays those were. However, seven is the number of turnovers the Eagles committed during that three-game losing streak. Turnovers, penalties, and big plays allowed on defense were the three reasons most players cited for the collapse - and one came up more than the others.
"Turning the ball over, turning the ball over," Maclin said. "Yeah, turning the ball over."
Dropping the ball
After losing to Washington, safety Malcolm Jenkins said the Eagles were playing on "borrowed time" because turnovers had been an issue all year. They committed three in the season opener. They went only one game this season without a turnover. The problems didn't start during the lost streak; they were just obscured by the victories.
"I think the biggest thing was, especially early in the year, we got a lot of wins we probably shouldn't have gotten," Jenkins said. "And even the ones we didn't get, the losses we had were really close, and we always felt like we were one play away. But we never corrected the problem."
The Eagles survived as long as they did with the help of special teams and defensive touchdowns. They scored 10 non-offensive touchdowns, including seven in their first five games. There were no return scores during the three-game losing steak.
"The record probably shouldn't be where it is right now, to be honest," right tackle Lane Johnson said.
Even in the one game the Eagles did not turn the ball over - a Nov. 10 win over Carolina - Kelly was not enthused the next day. They scored a season-high 45 points, were plus-5 in turnovers, and had nine sacks and a special-teams touchdown. It seemed to be their most complete game of the season.
Yet Kelly said the offense did not play well "at all.". One week later, the Eagles allowed 53 points to Green Bay and played their worst game of the season. They turned the ball over four times. The problems were not solved.
"You know that's eventually going to catch up with you," Jenkins said. "Our goal wasn't to deny we had a problem. It was just something we never got fixed. And when you start losing games to good teams - especially when you lose by a close margin - really, the problem is the turnover margin. So you can't be surprised when you lose three in a row if you're not paying attention to that stat."
Jenkins added that the Eagles have "glaring mistakes" they must clean up before becoming a playoff team. That's a harsh reality for a team that seemed ticketed for the postseason entering December.
"I thought this was the team would really do it," McCoy said.
He was not the only one. The Eagles have five Pro Bowl players, tied for third most of any team. It's the most of any non-playoff team. Kelly called the reality of a season out of the playoffs "gut-wrenching," and compared it to walking off the field after their first-round loss to New Orleans last January. This season, they won't even have that chance.
"It's a lot of ifs and buts," Johnson said. "But it just [stinks] when you have everything in your hands and you just let it slip. That's the worst thing about this."
The Eagles had a strong probability of winning the NFC East and making the playoffs after their Week 13 win at Dallas on Thanksgiving. Here is how those chances fell with each subsequent loss, based on simulations run by makeNFLplayoffs.com.
Probability to . . .
Week Result Win Division Make Playoffs
13 W, Dallas 76.99% 86.52%
14 L, Seattle 62.41% 69.68%
15 L, Dallas 31.08% 35.10%
16 L, Washington 0% 0%