THE NEXT-TO-LAST play of the first quarter. Third-and-a-yard on Denver's 18.

This was one of those situations that have come up hundreds of times during Andy Reid's now epic and recently extended stewardship of this football team.

And the idea advanced by the coach after every Sunday or Monday night misadventure - now a mantra that can be recited even by schoolchildren - is this:

"I've got to do a better job of putting players in a position to win."

There are semantic variations, of course - "It's up to me . . . ," etc. But the root message is always the same. It leaves little room for misinterpretation. It has been a chiseled-in-stone constant for

Reid during the 11 seasons that have become more reign than career.

The message is this, and it obviously resonates through the various dramatis personae of what has also been the Donovan McNabb Era:

"When we lose, it's on me; when we win, it's on you."

Accept the blame for gloomy Sundays. Step out of the klieg lights when the green-jerseyed mobs are online looking for the best Super Bowl packages and the airwaves are awash with civic hubris.

So it's the penultimate of the first quarter on Dec. 27, the NFC East title with its still-possible golden bye week to heal and prepare, and a homefield conference playoff game touching-close. Time to stop treating the red zone like airport security.

Marty Mornhinweg dialed up the Wildcat with DeSean Jackson, the littlest Eagle, running wide left in a play that was so slow to develop, there was time to shriek, "Why not let the 245-pound QB follow Jamaal Jackson on a quick count?"

DeSean kept looking for a cutting lane, but the tough Denver run defense strung him to the sideline, where linebacker D.J. Williams slammed him out of bounds for a minus-3. Slammed him hard. The diminutive dervish appeared to be hurting a little and pretty much vanished from the offense the second half. Kind of the way he vanished early in the fourth quarter of the lopsided, Week 2 loss to the Saints. Turned out with 8 minutes, 42 seconds left in the second quarter of that game, he lined up in the Wildcat, ran right and gained 4 yards, tweaking his groin on the play.

Turns out Jackson's minus-3 on a play where finesse was deemed the best way to gain a yard was a bit of foreshadowing in what appeared to be ho-hum victory No. 11 after the Birds took a 17-point, third-quarter lead.

There was a lot of bad football played from that point. Very little of it seemed to be the result of Andy Reid failing to put the Eagles in the best position to win. I didn't see Big Red grab a face mask or commit two penalties on the same play after an interception by Asante Samuel that negated a 40-yard runback and left the Eagles pinned on their 1.

Reid didn't run out of bounds covering a punt, which is what Tracy White did before what became a five-play, 25-yard Denver scoring drive that replaced the word "laugher" with "tense."

And Reid didn't launch a worm-killer to nobody in particular on the three-and-out, after the Broncos had promptly picked up seven more points following a fumbled kickoff to make it a three-point game. "Tense" was down to "Oh, bleep," uttered by the increasingly distraught parisioners.

Nor did Reid take the sack that left McNabb facing second-and-20 on his 20, or cause Todd Herremans to jump offside on the next play in the fourth quarter.

Now, here's a really radical concept: Wouldn't it be dramatically correct if the same group of players who put a giant FUBAR (fouled up beyond all recognition) stamp on what for a while loomed as a costly loss, put Reid in position to win the game? Execute the plays designed to produce victory through positive yardage, first downs and touchdowns.

I mean, what would be wrong with putting the accountability for failing to win on the athletes?

Jeremy Maclin must have been reading my mind. By completely violating the laws of what the human body was designed to do while attempting to catch a football, the rookie wideout stretched almost to the airport to catch a 27-yard McNabb pass while somehow managing a tap dance just inches from the sideline good enough to land him on "Dancing with the Stars."

Three plays up-the-middle later, David Akers drilled a 28-yard field goal, the Eagles had a 30-27 victory, a win No. 11 that left a bye and conference playoff home-field advantage very much on the table.

Remember, Marty Mornhinweg dialed up the play that put Jeremy Maclin in a position to win.

But coaches can only game plan and try not to pound too many round pegs into square holes. When the game plan starts falling apart, when the fog of war obscures those X's-and-O's that work so well in the seven-on-seven drills, no matter how much an Andy Reid strains to take the rap for a loss, it falls on the players to make him look good once in a while.

To put him in a position to win a game because they made the plays work.

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