YOU MIGHT want to thank the right upright in the north end zone of Lincoln Financial Field for putting the 2007 Eagles out of their misery, if things unfold as they should over the next week or 2.
Otherwise, you'd be wasting valuable Christmas-shopping time figuring out wild-card scenarios, getting your hopes up, convincing yourself the Birds have a chance this coming week at Dallas - when it just isn't there. Whatever it is that makes a team a playoff team, that separates reasons for winning from excuses for losing, these guys just don't quite have it. They almost have it, more often than not, which will drive you crazy if you let it, but at the end, they don't.
The quarterbacking isn't clutch enough, regardless of which one you're talking about. The receivers aren't dynamic enough. The defense gives up just a few too many big plays. Put it all together and you have a 5-8 team, which now has lost three games in a row by a total of 11 points, in the aftermath of yesterday's 16-13 loss to the New York Giants. The Eagles have led in the second half of each of those games.
The upright stood tall yesterday against a last-gasp attempt to keep this mess lurching forward, for a few more minutes, and maybe a few more weeks, stood against the notion that a season of carelessly frittered chances could still be redeemed. David Akers' 57-yard Hail Mary field-goal attempt, which would have tied for the longest kick of a distinguished career and made Akers the franchise's all-time scoring leader, soared into the gray December gloom. It looked more than long enough and then, even more amazing, it looked as if it were going to slip inside, setting up overtime, and who knows what else. Then, there was the upright, stark, vivid yellow against the gray, deflecting the ball and tumbling it back down to the end zone, where it bounced off the turf as Akers clapped his hands to the sides of his helmet and the 9-4 Giants rejoiced.
"Man, that goalpost, glad it was right where it was, not an inch left or right," Giants defensive end Michael Strahan said.
On the other sideline, another defensive end watched with very different emotions.
"I saw it go up. I thought it was going to go through, until it hit the pole. What you going to do?" Juqua Thomas asked.
"We just haven't been able to put it all together," said Thomas, who gave his team hope when he ripped the ball loose from Giants running back Brandon Jacobs just as New York seemed to be driving for a score that would have put the game out of reach. Thomas then recovered the fumble at the Eagles' 5, with 5 minutes, 51 seconds remaining. But the ensuing Birds drive died when the officiating crew watched Giants linebacker Antonio Pierce jump onto Jason Avant's back, preventing Avant from catching a fourth-and-6 pass from Donovan McNabb inside the Giants' 40 on the first play after the 2-minute warning. Umpire Roy Ellison and line judge Tom Stephan seemed uninterested in Andy Reid's heated dissertation on pass interference and the Giants got the ball.
The Eagles eventually got it back 89 yards from the fateful right upright, no timeouts left and 53 seconds remaining. McNabb, unable to complete anything but checkdowns all afternoon in his comeback from that Nov. 18 right-ankle sprain, suddenly hit Reggie Brown for 19 yards, Greg Lewis for 18, then Brown for 9, after a spike that was delayed by Giants corner Sam Madison holding Brian Westbrook down to keep him from lining up. (Again, the officiating crew demurred.)
So it came down to needing a near-miracle from Akers with 6 seconds left to get to overtime, and the near-miracle near-happened, providing the perfect commentary on this near-season.
"I would like to chalk it up as a bounce of the ball, but how many times are you going to let the ball bounce?" Eagles linebacker Takeo Spikes asked.
Technically, that second wild-card spot remains a possibility, the Birds two down with three to play. The various scenarios are pretty complicated, but all you really need to know is the Mets aren't involved, and the Eagles aren't going to the playoffs.
"I'm not going to sum it up, because we're not done yet," Reid stubbornly insisted, when asked if this loss summed up the season. Asked about the task of getting his team to believe, with three games left, Reid said: "They believe, and they're going to play hard. That's what they do. It's tough right now, because you're asking me 5 minutes after a game."
McNabb and the offense looked unstoppable the first time they took the field, then quickly morphed into unwatchable. In the second and third quarters, the Birds gained all of 57 yards. Despite a pedestrian performance by Eli Manning, which mostly involved counting on Plaxico Burress to break tackles and get the ball downfield against an ineffective Lito Sheppard (Burress' seven catches accounted for 136 of Manning's 219 passing yards), the Giants were able to creep back into the game and even take command.
Everything went like clockwork the first time the Eagles got the ball: They scored a touchdown on their first possession for only the fourth time this season. Six plays, 68 yards, three Brian Westbrook runs for 30 yards setting up an 18-yard Westbrook screen for a TD, with McNabb rolling right.
But penalties and an inability to connect on anything but underneath passes blunted every other first-half drive, and the Giants managed a pair of field goals for a 7-6 halftime deficit. The first came after yet another memorable Eagles goal-line stand, New York getting four cracks at the end zone after Brian Dawkins bulldogged Reuben Droughns at the 1, ending a 35-yard romp. The Birds even survived an offside call on Darren Howard. Omar Gaither stacked up Droughns on third down.
The Birds led, 10-6, early in the third quarter after Gaither hit Jacobs just as he caught a checkdown pass and the ball bounced free. Mike Patterson picked it up and ran it to the Giants' 8. New York challenged the ruling of a catch, and on replays, it seemed Jacobs couldn't have had the ball more than a second at the most, but the ruling was upheld.
The Eagles took this gift, dropped it and stepped on it. First snap, Todd Herremans false-started. Second, McNabb couldn't find a receiver and was sacked by Osi Umenyiora. Then McNabb hit Kevin Curtis, who was tackled at the 12. On third-and-goal, the Giants blitzed and McNabb threw the ball out of bounds at the sideline, over L.J. Smith, the Eagles basically conceding any kind of attempt to convert to the blitz. Akers hit from 29 yards.
The rest of the game might have been a contest of field-goal kickers and punters had the unthinkable not happened, on first-and-10 from the Eagles' 39. Westbrook was tackled 2 yards after catching a screen pass, and Justin Tuck ripped the ball out. Madison recovered and advanced it to the Birds' 37.
"I really hurt this ballclub today with that fumble," said Westbrook, who went a mere 555 touches between turnovers, having previously fumbled Oct. 6, 2006, against Dallas.
Three plays later, Burress went uncovered on a blitz and Manning got him the ball for a 20-yard TD. On the play just before the touchdown, the Eagles forfeited a timeout they surely could have used at the end, challenging a ruling that Amani Toomer was down before he fumbled at the Eagles' 20. Replays did not support the Eagles' contention.
A 41-yard pass to Burress on the Giants' next series led to a 23-yard Lawrence Tynes field goal and a 16-10 New York lead, but the Birds got three back after a 12-play, 57-yard drive that featured only three called passes - a 5-yard completion to Avant, a sack and a no-chance incomplete heave to Westbrook on third-and-8 from the Giants' 21, just before Akers' 39-yard field goal.
Jacobs, not so great at holding onto the ball or gaining yardage (22 carries, 70 yards) did turn out to be pretty good at predicting the future.
"I told Takeo Spikes when they challenged Toomer's catch, 'You guys are going to need that timeout.' And they did," Jacobs said. "After the game I found him and said, 'I told you you'd need that timeout.' And he said, 'You're right. We needed it.' "
They needed more than that, on an afternoon when the Eagles converted 2 of 13 third-down opportunities, even though the Giants started a pair of backup safeties. This time, Birds offensive coordinator Marty Mornhinweg showed balance almost to a fault, 26 called runs and 32 called passes. But by the fourth quarter, it seemed Mornhinweg had given up on McNabb completing anything more than a 5-yard pass. Westbrook carried the ball 10 times in 18 snaps before the noncall on the pass to Avant pushed the Birds into desperation passing mode.
"It was just a great job on their part," said McNabb, whose longest completion before the last drive was the 18-yard first-drive scoring play to Westbrook. "In our offense, we are made for big plays. We've done that, we've taken shots. Today just wasn't one of those days."