CHICAGO - Correll Buckhalter, valiant warrior that he is, faced the questions head-on, the way he tried to crack the Chicago Bears' line on the final, most frustrating episode of an evening defined by the Eagles' offense short-circuiting and frittering away what should have been a victory over the Chicago Bears at Soldier Field.
"I did the best I could, the linemen did the best they could," said Buckhalter, who gained 66 yards on 16 carries, but needed 1 more. "We just came up short . . . It hurts bad. They just executed better than we did."
Four late fourth-quarter cracks at the goal line from the Bears' 4, three from the 1.
No points. Chicago wins, 24-20.
If Brian Westbrook had been able to play, or if David Akers was still the kicker he once was, Buckhalter wouldn't have been left to try to explain how the Eagles are 2-2, just like the Bears, who spent the entire second half trying to give them the game.
But Westbrook and his injured ankle were watching from the sideline, and the Eagles didn't have the offensive weapons to win, despite an amazing series of opportunities provided by four Bears turnovers.
On first-and-goal from the 4, after driving from their 24 in seven plays, the Birds got a 3-yard run from Buckhalter. On second down, fullback Tony Hunt seemed to have a hole inside but didn't go there and lost nearly a yard. It wasn't clear what Hunt was doing. On third down, Buckhalter tried to leap the pile, the way Westbrook does so effortlessly, and he came up about a foot short.
Fourth down, 3 minutes and 40 seconds left, instead of a sneak or a roll by Donovan McNabb, the Eagles sent Buckhalter into the middle again, and defensive end Alex Brown got penetration, grabbing Buckhalter by the neck as he leaned into the pile. Not quite there, by an inch or two.
"I kind of wanted to jump, but they were already up in the air," Buckhalter said.
"We've got to score. We're on the 1-foot line. We've got to score," said Eagles coach Andy Reid, whose playcalling left much room for second-guessing. "It's my responsibility to get our guys into the end zone, when we have the opportunities."
There and on an earlier failed short-yardage conversion, Reid did not call a quarterback sneak, even though McNabb has been pretty much automatic on those his entire career, and is, in fact, bigger than Buckhalter. Reid said he considered the idea but abandoned it because of McNabb's contused chest.
The quarterback said he would have been "more than willing" to sneak, had the play been called.
"There were opportunities" on the final series, McNabb said. "We just didn't capitalize."
The Bears basically derailed the Eagles' offense in the second half by shutting down DeSean Jackson, who caught just one pass for 7 yards after catching four for 64 and a touchdown in the first half.
Several questionable Reid decisions aside, we learned three disappointing things about the 2-2 Birds.
1. Without Westbrook, Jackson is the game-breaking weapon. This became painfully apparent when the Birds could manage just six points off those four Bears turnovers.
2. Jackson really is just a rookie, as McNabb has persisted in trying to tell us since early in training camp.
Jackson fumbled away a punt, leading to a Bears touchdown. Then he broke the wrong way on a pass pattern, leading to a Bears interception. He also let a 67-yard punt bounce out at the Eagles' 4, and dropped a catchable pass, before disappearing from the offense down the stretch, even as Chicago kept losing cornerbacks to injuries.
3. These days, a decision to have Akers try a field goal from 45 yards or farther is only going to give great field position to the opposition.
The start of the game was off-key, as the Bears needed all of three plays to score. They were hurrying up to keep the Birds off-balance, and it worked. Tight end Greg Olsen might or might not have had full possession with both feet down in the back of the end zone on the 19-yard TD pass, but Chicago was allowed to hurry-up the extra point before anyone could slow down the replay.
The Eagles responded with an eight-play, 74-yard drive featuring Jackson. McNabb went to Jackson on second and 13 from his 23 for 23 yards, then the rookie wideout gained 21 yards on an end-around. Finally, on third-and-10 from the Bears' 22, McNabb found Jackson in the back of the end zone, dropping the ball perfectly over a reaching Brian Urlacher. It was 7-7.
Jackson made a huge mistake, when a punt basically bounced off him and was recovered by the Bears' Nick Roach. Chicago took a 14-7 lead two plays later, Marty Booker eluding Quintin Mikell in the end zone and catching a Kyle Orton TD pass.
The Eagles got the points right back on a drive that featured 16 and 31-yard passes to Reggie Brown, his first significant contribution to the season, before Buckhalter blasted in from a yard out.
The Birds might have been ready to take control when Juqua Parker hit Orton as he threw and Darren Howard picked off the pass, setting up McNabb and the offense at the Bears' 41. But a slow-developing third-and-1 Buckhalter run was stuffed.
Then, on fourth down, Reid elected to have Akers try a 50-yard field goal, despite the fact that Akers was 3-for-his-last-11 from 40 yards-plus. Akers pulled it wide right. So the Eagles got no points from the turnover, and the Bears, blessed with excellent field position the entire first half, got the ball at their 40.
This sequence of events became more frustrating in light of the ensuing nine-play Chicago touchdown drive, which ended with a 20-yard Orton touchdown pass to Devin Hester and a 21-14 Chicago halftime lead. Not to sound homerish here, but it sure looked as if Hester bumped Asante Samuel off-stride before he made the catch.
The Eagles briefly were given a fumble recovery with 11 seconds left in the first half, but video replay showed Orton's arm moving forward as Omar Gaither hit him.
The teams exchanged turnovers early in the second half. Jackson turned the opposite way from what McNabb expected, giving Kevin Payne an easy pick and the Bears the ball at the Birds' 11, after Buckhalter hurt his back making the tackle, taking him out for a few series. But then Gaither hit Orton as he threw and Mikell picked the ball off in the end zone.
Akers plunked a 47-yarder off the right upright, then finally hit, from 24, after Gaither pounced on an Orton fumble produced by a Trent Cole sack. Akers hit again from 31, following another Orton fumble.
"My power's there," said Akers, who noted that had he converted either of his misses, the Eagle would have been kicking a field goal to take the late lead, instead of trying to punch the ball home on fourth down against a stout run defense. "For some reason tonight, I just didn't aim where I needed to aim. I just feel bad for all the guys. They worked so hard."
The Bears made it 24-20 when Robbie Gould hit a 41-yard field goal early in the fourth.
"I don't feel they were depending on me any more than in any other game," Jackson said. "This was a tough one for me today. I didn't play as good as I'm capable of doing."
Jackson was asked about the swirling wind on the fumbled punt.
"I'm not going to make excuses," he said. "I made a fumble, made a mistake. I have to live with it."
He said he hesitated about whether to fair-catch the ball.
Westbrook did take the field, a little more than 2 hours before game time, walking up and down with Eagles head athletic trainer Rick Burkholder. Westbrook and Burkholder then conferred on the field with general manager Tom Heckert and offensive coordinator Marty Mornhinweg. This added a little suspense to the proceedings, but the bottom line ended up being just what it seemed to be all week, following Westbrook's ankle strain suffered against the Steelers - the franchise back wasn't playing .
The fact that he came on the trip - unlike inactive teammates Kevin Curtis (sports hernia), Shawn Andrews (back and L.J. Smith (back) - and walked around beforehand in sweat clothes with the trainer makes it seem likely that Westbrook will not be sidelined much longer, and could very well be back in time for this Sunday's encounter with the Redskins. That would be a darned good thing, in light of how 3-1 Washington dispatched the Cowboys yesterday.
And oh, yeah, the Eagles are in last place in the NFC East again, in case you were wondering. *