NEW ORLEANS - The Eagles are building momentum, peaking at the right time and are as dangerous as any team in the NFC right now.
"To come out today and play the way we played in this game, we need to feed off that and we need to have more games like that," quarterback Donovan McNabb said after his impressive afternoon reminded us of seasons past and helped the Eagles pin a crushing 38-23 loss on the New Orleans Saints today at the Superdome.
Maybe the Eagles can feed off this late-season surge that has seen them put together consecutive road victories against the Dallas Cowboys and Saints. Maybe they can turn all of this into something special, but we're going to have to wait a long time to find out: At about 4 p.m. next Sunday, their 2007 season is going to expire when they conclude a meaningless game against the Buffalo Bills.
"I'm sure there are a lot of teams that are glad we're not going to the playoffs," safety Quintin Mikell said. "They'd be scared."
Perhaps, but that notion only fuels the disappointment for those who wear and bleed green.
"It's really frustrating," Mikell said. "It's hard to deal with because this is a good team right here and we put a good whipping on them. To be going home knowing there are teams [in the playoffs] that we could beat, it's really frustrating."
There was some small measure of satisfaction that the Eagles all but squashed the Saints' playoff hopes a season after being eliminated from the postseason in the same exact building. New Orleans slipped to 7-8, the same record as the Eagles, and will likely be watching the postseason after coming up one win shy of going to the Super Bowl a year ago.
"It's definitely a satisfying victory," cornerback Sheldon Brown said. "They put us out of the playoffs and they beat us in the regular season. From a defensive standpoint, they ran the ball down our throat last year and we weren't able to do anything about it. Today, we were able to make some plays and return the favor. We are hot right now. We're playing loose and relaxed and it is what it is. We're not going to the playoffs, but we're still going to continue to play hard."
The Eagles played hard and they were wildly entertaining, thanks in large part to a rejuvenated McNabb, who took advantage of his improved health and a weak Saints secondary to complete 24 of 35 passes for 263 yards and three touchdowns.
"He looked great," coach Andy Reid said. "I thought he ran strong. I thought he played his heart out, throwing the ball, running the ball, and he had great command of the huddle."
He also had one long run that led to the game's first touchdown, a bizarre 64-yard play that ended with receiver Kevin Curtis recovering a fumble in the end zone. On a third-and-1 play, offensive coordinator Marty Mornhinweg called a bootleg left and McNabb, with the help of a block from rookie tight end Brent Celek, ran into open space, covering 40 yards to the New Orleans' 26-yard line, where safety Josh Bullocks caught up to him and punched the ball out of his grasp.
The football rolled all the way to the 1-yard line, where Saints cornerback Mike McKenzie whiffed at his attempt to recover it.
"I was blocking my guy and then I saw it on the screen that the ball had popped up," said Curtis after catching six passes for 78 yards to go over the 1,000-yard mark for the season. "It seemed like they had a bunch of guys right there . . . and I was just kind of following the play in case the ball squirmed out, which it did."
That was the start of a wild first quarter that saw the teams combine for 35 points and 318 yards of offense. After the Saints rebounded to score the next two touchdowns, McNabb made sure the Eagles held up their end of the deal in this shoot-out by leading the Eagles on a six-play, 63-yard drive that ended with an explosive 20-yard touchdown run by Correll Buckhalter.
The next time the Eagles got the football, McNabb used his legs and arm for a huge first-down completion. After eluding pressure from former teammate Hollis Thomas, McNabb sprinted to his right and found Celek wide open for a 29-yard completion.
The drive ended with McNabb throwing a perfect pass to Reggie Brown for a 31-yard touchdown. Brown had beaten rookie Usama Young, who had just replaced an injured McKenzie at cornerback.
"When you lose a guy like McKenzie . . . that definitely takes a little bit of air out of them," McNabb said.
New Orleans took momentum into halftime when Martin Gramatica connected on a 55-yard field goal to cut the Eagles' lead to 24-17, but rookie linebacker Stewart Bradley and the defense got the momentum back for the Eagles on the Saints' first offensive series of the second half.
The Saints went from their own 21 to the Eagles' 1-yard line in eight plays. In the process, the Birds lost linebacker Omar Gaither for the game with a bruised quadriceps.
New Orleans thought it had a touchdown when Drew Brees connected with David Patten at the goal line, but the officials ruled the receiver was down at the half-yard line. Saints coach Sean Payton challenged the call and it cost him a time-out, leaving his team in a second-and-goal situation.
Trent Cole stopped fullback Mike Karney for no gain on second down. Bradley, who contributed a sack and an interception in his first NFL start, stopped Aaron Stecker on third down, then teamed with Mikell to stop the running back again on fourth down.
"This was a great opportunity for him," defensive coordinator Jim Johnson said of Bradley. "He started out a little shaky, made some mental mistakes the first couple of series, and then he settled down. You saw he's a very physical player, he can run and he made some nice hits."
What happened next was equally important.
The Eagles went 98 yards on 15 plays for a touchdown that put them up, 31-17. McNabb completed 6 of 7 passes on the drive, including a critical third-and-5 pass to Brown for a first down from the Saints' 9. One play later, Greg Lewis used umpire Darrell Jenkins to screen a Saints defender and caught a 9-yard touchdown pass from McNabb.
"I thought that transition between the goal-line stand and the 98-yard touchdown drive was kind of icing on the cake," Reid said.
The Eagles never relinquished control of the game after that and won for a second straight time on the road, giving themselves a chance to finish at .500 with a win over Buffalo Sunday at Lincoln Financial Field.
Reid, a devout believer in the theory that every year is different, conceded that this end-of-season surge might help his team get off to a better start next year.
"It gives you at least a positive going in," Reid said. "Every year is different and every team is different, but it keeps a good, positive atmosphere around the office and I think that helps. I know it's too late; the guys know it's too late as far as the playoffs go. It's tough, but we're going to enjoy every moment we play this season and we'll sulk a little bit when it's done."