After the Eagles won their epic struggle for mediocrity with a 17-9 conquering of the Buffalo Bills yesterday at Lincoln Financial Field, there were only a few things left to ask the coach and players during their exit interviews.

How would you describe this 8-8 season that started with an Edward Scissorhands loss in Green Bay and ended with three straight victories that apparently were good for the team's heart and soul but not enough for a cherished invitation to the postseason party?

Eight-and-eight never has been a reason to celebrate.

"It's easy to sit back and say it's frustrating, but it was more or less a test for all of us," quarterback Donovan McNabb said. "I thought we missed on a lot of opportunities throughout the season, and we kind of paid for it. That's why we're sitting here now with the season over."

That's more than a fair assessment. McNabb's ninth season in the league was a test for the quarterback, and it included plenty of midseason calls for his ouster.

McNabb returned to his starting role during that game in Green Bay a little more than 10 months after undergoing surgery to repair a torn anterior cruciate ligament in his right knee. Less mobile and seemingly less confident, the quarterback struggled to lead the offense to touchdowns even as running back Brian Westbrook did amazing things.

Westbrook, by the way, completed one of the greatest seasons ever by an Eagles running back with 99 yards from scrimmage against a Bills team that finished 7-9 and left you wondering how it won that many games. Westbrook set single-season franchise records for yards from scrimmage with 2,104 and receptions with 90.

Too often, however, Westbrook's yards did not add up to touchdowns for the Eagles, who went into the season finale as the 24th-ranked team in scoring touchdowns inside the 20-yard line and continued to struggle in that department.

McNabb said that was his biggest frustration this season, and it remained a problem right to the end as the Eagles managed just one touchdown during three trips inside the 20 against the Bills.

"I think that's the case for all of us on the offensive side, because we know what we are capable of doing," McNabb said. "We know what we were able to do in certain games, and if that had been consistent, we'd be sitting here with a different record and being able to play next week."

The Eagles' lone touchdown inside the red zone against Buffalo came on a first-quarter pass from McNabb to rookie tight end Brent Celek on third and goal from the 2-yard line. A McNabb interception ended an Eagles scoring threat early in the second quarter, and a first-down sack eventually forced the home team to settle for a David Akers field goal just before halftime.

"We're not very far off," Westbrook said when asked about the offense. "We made some mistakes. Even today we made some mistakes - penalties, turnovers, things like that definitely hurt us. To be a better offense, we shouldn't have those types of things."

Even with the missed opportunities, the Eagles' 10 first-half points were enough to win because the defense did not surrender a touchdown for the fifth time all season and the second time in three games.

The Eagles' red-zone defense was the team's greatest strength all season and again yesterday. Buffalo traveled inside the Eagles' 20 four times and settled for three field goals. On the Bills' final trip inside the 20, rookie running back Marshawn Lynch was stopped short of a first down by linebacker Akeem Jordan and cornerback Sheldon Brown on fourth and 1.

"This is the best defense that I've been on since we went to the Super Bowl," Brown said. "How many teams scored more than 17 points on us? That's our goal."

The answer to Brown's question is eight. His point was that this Eagles defense was good enough to win even if it finished last in the NFL in creating turnovers with 19.

Of course, the only other question worth asking after an 8-8 season is this: How do the Eagles get back to being a Super Bowl contender after failing to reach the playoffs for the second time in three years?

"It's easy to say that we are close," McNabb said. ". . . I think what we've seen in these last couple weeks is a team that continues to fight no matter what the situation is and a young defense that is stepping up and playing well. But I think this is going to be an important off-season for us. We have to focus on a lot of different things and obviously bring pieces in to help us out for next year and the years to come. For the guys that are here, we have to elevate our games."

That's the second time in the last three weeks that McNabb has said the Eagles need outside help, and there's reason to believe he will get it.

"Every season you tweak it a little bit," coach Andy Reid said. "Right now, my hat goes off to the guys we have. I think they did a nice job. I know everybody won't be back. That's the nature of the NFL. We'll get on that as time goes on here. Tweaks will take place, but right now I'm not concerned about that. But I know things will happen."

What those "tweaks" will be won't be known until the free-agent market opens in March, but as the Eagles said goodbye to their season yesterday, they seemed confident they could turn 8-8 in 2007 to something great in 2008.

"We will be a contender again," Reid said.

A year from now, we'll know if the coach made good on his vow.

Go Westbrook, Young Man

Brian Westbrook became the Eagles' all-time single-season leader in yards from scrimmage and receptions yesterday in the 17-9 win against the Bills. He rushed for 42 yards on 7 carries and gained 57 yards on 4 receptions for a season total of 2,104 yards, which broke Wilbert Montgomery's record of 2,006 set in 1979. With his 90 catches, Westbrook broke Irving Fryar's total of 88 set in 1996. His 1,333 rushing yards (third in the NFL) are the most by an Eagle since Ricky Watters rushed for 1,411 in 1996, and he became only the sixth player in NFL history, and first since Walter Payton (1983-85), to lead his team in receptions and rushing yards for three straight seasons.

Single-Season Yards From Scrimmage Leaders

Year       Touches   Yards          TDs

1. Brian Westbrook       2007      368       2,104       12

2. Wilbert Montgomery    1979      379       2,006       14

3. Montgomery          1981       335       1,923       10

4. Westbrook             2006      317       1,916       11

5. Ricky Watters          1996       404       1,855       13

6. Watters                1995       399       1,707       12

7. Duce Staley             2002       320       1,570       8

8. Staley                   1999       366       1,567       6

9. Watters                1997      333       1,550       7

10. Timmy Brown          1965       208       1,543       9

Single-Season Reception Leaders

Year   No.   Yards      Long   TDs

1. Brian Westbrook (RB)      2007    90      771       57t    5

2. Irving Fryar                1996    88       1,195    42      11

3. Fryar                      1997    86       1,316      72t   6

4t. Keith Byars (RB)          1990    81       819       54       3

4t. Keith Jackson (TE)      1988   81      869       41      6

6. Fred Barnett             1994    78       1,127    54       5

7t. Westbrook (RB          2006    77       699       52t    4

7t. Terrell Owens             2004   77       1,200    59t    14

9. Herschel Walker (RB)      1993    75       610       55       3

10t. Westbrook (RB)         2004   73       703      50       6

10t. Mike Quick             1985    73       1,247    99t    11EndText

View a photo gallery from yesterday's game at http://go.philly.com/photos.

See highlights on CineSport at http://go.philly.com/sports.

Phil Sheridan

The Eagles' season ended the same way it was played out all along: a complete mystery. C5.

EndText

Contact staff writer Bob Brookover
at 215-854-2577 or bbrookover@phillynews.com.