IT WASN'T THE dumbest loss of the season.
Hard to top the season opener at Green Bay for that honor. Losing solely because you can't field punts, well, that trumps just about anything else that might come up.
But this was close, this dagger-to-the-guts, 28-24 Eagles setback to the Seattle Seahawks that occurred because A.J. Feeley hit Seattle linebacker Lofa Tatupu in the chest with passes not once, not twice, but three times, the last on third-and-7 from the Seahawks' 11 with 14 seconds remaining. On the final pick, Feeley was trying to hit Reggie Brown, as he had for a touchdown a week earlier at New England, but Feeley failed to notice the 242-pound linebacker standing between them. (Feeley also threw a third-quarter pick to linebacker Julian Peterson, perhaps mistaking him for Tatupu.)
As Feeley dropped back that last time, on a miserable, bone-chilling, cold and rainy afternoon, oddly enough, the Eagles seemed poised to win. An amazing, straw-grasp of a 64-yard Brian Westbrook punt return with 1:16 remaining had nearly wiped out Feeley's mistakes and a bunch of questionable playcalling, including a disastrous sequence that unfolded at the end of the first half, the Birds taking four cracks from the Seattle 1 and failing to score.
Courtesy of Westbrook, though, it was all going to be stuff the Eagles could laugh off, could vow to correct as they continued their shambling pursuit of a wild-card berth. They'd won two in a row for the first time all season, then they'd fought the good fight in New England. Now, a win at home over the Seahawks would continue that momentum, even if they'd backslid into some of their careless, mistake-prone ways.
"I didn't see him," Feeley said of Tatupu, who also was credited with 11 tackles. "He did a good job of going with my eyes, and redirecting and going back and getting the ball. It's on me. Even with the timing thing [trying to get the ball out quickly], you don't try to force the ball."
Tatupu, though, seemed to be saying afterward he was watching for Westbrook when the ball showed up in his chest.
"Just as fate would have it, I wound up in the throwing lane," he said.
Westbrook, whose prime is likely being wasted by coaches and teammates who can't seem to quite pull it together when it counts, sat in front of his locker, in uniform, for more than half an hour afterward. Fullback Thom-as Tapeh pulled up a folding chair and spoke softly to him for several minutes, Westbrook nodding silently.
"It's very frustrating," Westbrook said after showering, dressing, and settling in behind the Linc podium. He didn't see the ball after the punt return, and got just 21 carries on an afternoon best suited for running, gaining 93 yards. "We had opportunities in the first half that we didn't take advantage of, we had opportunities in the second half that we didn't take advantage of. When you're playing a team that's good, you can't make mistakes like that, like we did today."
The Seahawks are 8-4, which would be the Eagles' record if they'd caught punts in Green Bay, prevented Chicago's journeyman quarterback Brian Griese from marching 97 yards in the final 2 minutes, and completed passes to Tatupu with slightly less frequency yesterday.
But we all know what Bill Parcells had to say about that sort of thing. The Eagles are 5-7, including a 2-4 record at home, on merit. Lose once because of preventable errors, that's unfortunate. Lose three times (at least) that way, that's who you are - regardless of who might be playing quarterback.
Somebody asked Westbrook if yesterday's loss carried more "finality" than some of the other near-misses. Actually, it didn't, given all the other mediocre NFC teams that lost as well. But that wasn't the direction of Westbrook's thinking.
"No," he said. "Another loss for us, another close game, more missed opportunities, things we didn't take advantage of. Not any more [final] than the others."
At least we won't have to spend the week listening to populist sages explain to us how much better the Eagles are with Feeley quarterbacking, because, you know, he reads defenses and stuff, so much better than Donovan McNabb.
If Feeley accomplished anything yesterday, he made it easy for coach Andy Reid to go back to McNabb next week against the Giants, assuming McNabb finally is recovered from the sprained right ankle (and jammed thumb) that caused him to miss the last two games.
"I think there's a pretty good chance," Reid said, when asked if he thought McNabb would be able to play next week.
Reid's team forced its first turnovers since the Washington game, 3 weeks earlier, getting a pick of Matt Hasselbeck and a fumble recovery, but two other should-have-been interceptions bounced off Eagles linebackers Takeo Spikes and Omar Gaither, and defensive tackle Kimo von Oelhoffen, playing for the first time since Sept. 23 because of a knee injury to Brodrick Bunkley, fell on a fumble but saw it squirt away. Given Feeley's generosity, the Birds needed to come up with all of those balls.
"It was a disappointing game," Reid revealed. "There were way too many turnovers, and we weren't able to capitalize on the ones we were able to get. You can't win games like that . . . You have to take care of business."
The Eagles had problems in that regard right from the first snap, on which Feeley (19-for-42 for 220 yards and a 30.0 passer rating) looked for L.J. Smith over the middle and found Tatupu, who ran the pick back 33 yards to the Birds' 18. The Seahawks scored four plays later.
The Eagles came back with a crisp drive in which they tied it on a 30-yard Correll Buckhalter run. That play demonstrated what was to become a prevelant theme for both defenses - the slippery-wet, resodded Linc turf didn't allow defenders to react quickly to cuts in the open field.
Then Feeley hit Tatupu again, aiming for Greg Lewis, and this time the middle linebacker rambled 49 yards, to the Eagles' 8, setting up another touchdown.
An Eagles field goal and a Seattle touchdown scored on the first play after a Sav Rocca line-drive punt was brought back 36 yards to the Birds' 43 made it 21-10, but Feeley found Kevin Curtis (six catches, 111 yards) for a 24-yard TD pass that cut the deficit to 21-17.
The Eagles' first-half frittering reached its nadir on a sequence that began with a first-and-goal at the Seattle 1, set up by a pass-interference call on Kelly Jennings. A Westbrook run into the middle got nothing. The Birds ran the clock down to 25 seconds left in the half, then called timeout. Their well-considered play call? A no-chance pass to Smith at the back of the end zone that the Seahawks smothered. On third-and-goal, Seattle got good penetration and Westbrook had to try to hurdle the middle early. Replays showed there was a tiny chance the ball might have broken the plane of the goal line on second effort, but that wasn't enough to overturn the ruling on the field that Westbrook didn't get in. Fourth-and-goal, 7 seconds left.
The simple call would have been a quarterback sneak, which gives the defense little time to react and penetrate. The Birds did not sneak. Instead, Feeley handed off to Westbrook, who almost immediately was submarined by Seahawks tackle Rocky Bernard, somehow unblocked by center Jamaal Jackson and right guard Shawn Andrews. No points, and a halftime deficit, despite outgaining the Seahawks, 234 yards to 138.
"It's kind of a tough momentum-killer going into the half without any points," Feeley noted.
"They did a pretty good job of kind of sniffing out what we were going to do, I think," Andrews said.
The Eagles finally took the lead in the third, on a 29-yard Westbrook run, but they gave it back for good on a 45-yard Maurice Morris run with 9:13 remaining in the third.
All those kudos Reid richly deserved after the New England game? If they weren't withdrawn after the end-of-the-first-half follies, they surely were canceled when, on third-and-1 early in the fourth quarter, the Birds' brain trust (Reid and offensive coordinator Marty Mornhinweg) dialed up a 25-yard pass attempt to Smith down the sideline, on a slippery field, in a freezing drizzle. With Westbrook, perhaps the NFL's deadliest back, healthy and available.
Shockingly, the ball was overthrown and the Eagles had to punt.
"With the weather, you'd think we'd run the ball a little bit more," Westbrook said. "We're a passing team, and we've always been.
"We're probably going to continue to be that, so I'm not surprised by what happened out there."
As to where the Eagles go from here, well, there are three NFC teams at 6-6, tied for that second and final wild card. Then there are five teams at 5-7. Technically, the Eagles are alive. Very technically.
"You don't want to get into a situation where you have to depend on everyone else to lose," Spikes said. "And now, that's what we're looking at." *