BALTIMORE - That had to have been the longest bus ride of Andy Reid's life last night, up I-95 to Philadelphia, assuming the Eagles' buses actually ended up in Philadelphia, which might not be a given, with this team and this coach.

Reid told the world in his postgame news conference that he does not know the identity of his starting quarterback going forward, with a game pending Thursday at home against Arizona. He promised to get back to us on that by today.

Watching, it sure looked as if Reid fired the final bullet in his gun yesterday, and missed. You might have heard by now, he benched 10th-year starting quarterback Donovan McNabb after a terrible, two-interception second quarter, only to get a nearly identical performance from inexperienced designated successor Kevin Kolb. The Eagles ended up losing to the Baltimore Ravens and rookie quarterback Joe Flacco, 36-7, in a game the Eagles' defense dominated in the early going.

You thought an overtime tie at Cincinnati was bad? At 5-5-1 this morning, the Eagles now probably need to win all their remaining games to qualify for the postseason. That seems just a tad unlikely, whichever lucky quarterback gets to lead them forward.

"The condition this team is in right now is deplorable," said wideout Reggie Brown, who did not register a catch, on a day when the Eagles' quarterback ratings were 13.2 (McNabb) and 15.3 (Kolb). "We're not producing anything; we can't get anything going on offense, we lack consistency all around. Every facet of the game, we lack consistency out there. That's to a man."

The Eagles' only touchdown came on a kickoff return. They have not scored an offensive touchdown in 99 minutes and 29 seconds. They have one in their last 140 minutes and 30 seconds. Flacco, from Audubon, N.J., completed only 12 of 26 passes, but he probably could have played blindfolded and still beaten the Eagles.

McNabb started reasonably well, for the first time in five games, completing six of seven passes in the first quarter, for 43 yards. But with the game scoreless, first-and-10 from the Ravens' 24, Jarret Johnson eluded Tra Thomas and came up on McNabb from behind, as McNabb cocked to throw. Johnson neatly plucked the ball off McNabb's fingertips and ran it the other way.

From there, McNabb could do nothing right. When halftime mercifully arrived, the Eagles trailing only 10-7 thanks to Quintin Demps' 100-yard kickoff return, McNabb had completed just two of 11 passes since the 6-for-7 start, for 16 yards, with two awful interceptions.

Most teams, most quarterbacks, you wouldn't have been shocked to see the backup jog onto the field for the first possession of the second half, but after 10 seasons of the Eagles as McNabb's team, it was really odd watching another guy lead the team out of the huddle, with McNabb, unhurt, clapping and cheering from underneath a green parka.

If it had worked, we might be talking about a Jeff Garcialike resurrection of the Eagles' playoff hopes, and a revived Reid this morning. But it didn't work. Boy, did it not work.

And now we are talking about eras ending and empires collapsing and what happens in the offseason.

Eagles president Joe Banner and team chairman Jeffrey Lurie were noticeably absent from the postgame locker room during the time reporters were present.

"No," McNabb said, when asked if he would have benched himself, had he been the coach, against the backdrop of seven McNabb turnovers in a seven-quarter span, including the OT period at Cincinnati. "But I guess that's my competitive nature. I always think we can get things going and make some plays. But that's why I'm not the coach."

McNabb said he got the news in the locker room at halftime from quarterbacks coach Pat Shurmur. Reid confirmed that he did not talk to his five-time Pro Bowl QB about the switch until after the game, which seemed to somehow typify the communications skills that have marked Reid's regime.

McNabb said his first reaction was "Wow," which, if memory serves, was also his reaction in April 2007 when the Eagles traded out of the first round and then drafted Kolb in the second.

"I thought it might be a little bit of a spark, and we might be able to get some things going," Reid said afterward.

Reid hinted he might be leaning toward coming back with McNabb on Thursday, hoping that the benching would be akin to hitting "control/alt/delete" and resetting the quarterback, who started the month having led the team to three wins in a row.

"Sometimes with a player, you can step back an inch and maybe you go forward a mile," Reid said. "I haven't made any decisions. I was able to step back and look at it from another perspective. It's important that [McNabb] plays the way I know he can play and that the guys around him do the same thing."

The Ravens assumed McNabb was injured. On the sideline, Ray Lewis even told Baltimore coach John Harbaugh of a hit that Lewis thought might have dinged McNabb. After the game, it was hard to convince Harbaugh - an Eagles assistant for 10 seasons - or his players that McNabb had just been benched.

Of course, they haven't been watching an Eagles team that thought itself a contender come undone over the past 3 weeks.

"You go along with it. You just continue to try to motivate the rest of the guys to rally around Kevin and help us win this game," McNabb said. "Unfortunately, that didn't happen."

Asked if he thought he'd be the starter against the Cardinals, McNabb said: "I definitely hope so."

Kolb - who obviously didn't get a starter's reps last week - authored one strong series, and it ended in record-setting disaster. Five crisp first downs, four nice hookups with Kolb's No. 1 wideout of the future, DeSean Jackson, and the Eagles had first-and-goal from the Ravens' 1, down 22-7, more than 8 minutes left, plenty of time to get the ball back after scoring, and to dream. Then Kolb tried to get into the end zone on a quarterback sneak. Didn't work.

Lots of teams, playing an inexperienced, unprepared QB in that situation, would have just run it again. Ah, but followers of the Reid era know the Eagles are not lots of teams. Kolb drifted back on a slow-developing pass play. He tried to hit Brown in the back of the end zone and never saw Ed Reed lurking. Reed ran his second pick of the day back a league-record 108 yards for the touchdown that made it 29-7.

"What frustrates me is once I got into a rhythm and we went down the field, I made a mistake at the end there that basically cost us the game," Kolb (10-for-23, 73 yards, two picks) said. "Obviously, it didn't go good, and I'm not going to pretend that it did."

Kolb is smart enough to know he can't plant his flag in this quagmire, that the McNabb era might limp along until the end of this awful season.

"I support him, he supports me," Kolb said of McNabb. Asked about Reid's decision, Kolb said: "I think Andy understands we have to win now . . . that's all he was trying to do, was win a football game."

How did that become such a chore, for a team that remained near the top of the league in many statistical categories, before yesterday?

"It's very frustrating, because I do feel, on paper, we had a playoff team," cornerback Sheldon Brown said, slipping ominously into the past tense. "I still feel that way. Chemistry - we just couldn't get it together, I don't know why. We're going to keep fighting. I know I am."

There was a time, just a few weeks back, when the Eagles could have been undefeated had they been able to effectively run the ball in a few specific short-yardage situations. Maybe the cracks started there and widened, until now large chunks of the foundation are caving.

"It just seems like there are some types of adversity we can never get over," Brown said. "As a team, as players, you have to make it happen. We haven't been making it happen."

Brian Westbrook, hobbled again by ankle and knee injuries (14 carries for 39 yards, two catches for minus-5 yards), was asked if he thought this was the end of the McNabb era.

"That's not for me to judge," said Westbrook, who had to play more than he might have expected, after Correll Buckhalter went down in the first half with an MCL injury. Reid elected not to activate his other running back, Lorenzo Booker, who was acquired last April to be a significant cog. "Donovan McNabb has been our leader for a long time, and he has done so much for our team. I'll always be supportive of him as a friend and a player."

Right tackle Jon Runyan, who arrived in 2000 as a free agent, was asked if he had ever seen this team more lost.

"Obviously not," Runyan said. He and Thomas will end the season without contracts for 2009, at 35 and 34, respectively. Brian Dawkins, also 35, is in the same situation.

"You never know," Runyan said, when asked about his Eagles tenure, and eras ending. "You just have to go out and play and see what happens. As far as I know, history says you don't stay at the top forever . . . Eventually, it's going to happen. You don't want it to happen while you're there, but eventually, it will." *

For more Eagles coverage and opinion, read the Daily News' Eagles blog, Eagletarian, at www.eagletarian.com.