THE EAGLES hadn't enjoyed many of these loosen-the-belt-and-exhale games since the season opener, which last night's balmy weather evoked.
The outcome of their 30-10 victory was never in doubt, after valiant Hank Baskett ran down cornerback Brandon McDonald at the Birds' 7 on a near-disaster of a final play of the first half. Lots of stat-building ensued against a Cleveland Browns team that mostly looked like it would rather have been somewhere else, would have preferred to quietly shuffle toward the end of its season far from the harsh glare of the "Monday Night Football" spotlight.
For Donovan McNabb, it had to feel good to complete 26 of 35 passes for 290 yards and a pair of touchdowns, and then take a seat with more than 11 minutes left in the game. For Jason Avant, it had to feel good to catch five passes for a career-high 101 yards. Ditto DeSean Jackson (five for 77). Correll Buckhalter celebrated his return from 2 weeks off because of a knee injury with 55 yards on six carries. The Eagles' defense had to feel very good about allowing only a field goal, on Cleveland's first drive of the game, and generally terrorizing quarterbacks Ken Dorsey and Joshua Cribbs. The Birds' D has allowed one meaningless garbage-time touchdown in the past two games.
But this was not a win to savor, it was a hurdle that had to be crossed. The next hurdle is looming at FedEx Field, where the Redskins lurk, just 5 days from today. Even if the 8-5-1 Eagles clear that one and the final one, Dallas at Lincoln Financial Field Dec. 28, they still might not make the playoffs. Atlanta's overtime victory Sunday over Tampa really cast a shadow over this late sprint to the finish from a Birds team that has only itself to blame for not being able to control its own destiny.
The Eagles couldn't beat Atlanta (again) last night, though, they could only drop Cleveland to 4-10, and keep themselves alive in case they get a little help from Brad Childress and the Vikings this weekend.
"Worrying about it is not going to change anything," noted middle linebacker Stewart Bradley. "If we don't win out, it's all for naught. We have to focus on winning our games."
Cornerback Asante Samuel spoke of "trying to sneak up in these playoffs, one way or another."
Eagles coach Andy Reid was talking about the short week when he declared afterward that "there is no time right now," but his words could have just as easily referred to the overall situation facing his team.
"The players understand what's at stake. You saw that by their effort tonight," Reid said. "They played a very aggressive game, on both sides of the football and on special teams. You've got to make sure you do that right now."
The Eagles needed to win five in a row, in the aftermath of their horrible, 36-7 loss at Baltimore Nov. 23, the game in which McNabb was benched. Three weeks ago, that seemed impossible for this group, let alone all the other stuff that would have to happen to get the Eagles to the postseason. Now, they are three-fifths of the way there.
"You notice [whether other contenders win], but you've just got to take care of your business and know that if you don't make it you did it to yourself, didn't take care of your business earlier in the year," said the always brutally honest Jon Runyan, who played in his 190th successive NFL game.
Runyan, listed as "questionable" going in because of a knee injury, was asked afterward how the knee felt. He said he would know today, when he could feel it again. (Kiddies, don't take that as an endorsement of potentially dangerous painkilling injections. But yes, that's how you play right tackle 190 games in a row.)
In the first half, the Eagles' offense (and Reid, its architect) almost seemed to be trying to keep the Browns in the game.
At halftime, the Birds had 262 net yards to Cleveland's 100, and a 17-3 lead, but they'd given the ball away in the Browns' end zone twice, both times on really messed-up plays.
First, Reid called for Jackson to get the snap from the "Wildcat" formation, on third-and-goal from the 7, Eagles up 10-3. It seemed really unlikely Jackson was going to run it in from the 7, so the Browns didn't look shocked when he flipped it, way too soft, over the middle, where Sean Jones grabbed it in the end zone, short of intended target Baskett.
But it was all good six plays later, when Chris Clemons pressured Ken Dorsey, and Dorsey threw the ball to Asante Samuel. Samuel ran the pick 50 yards for a touchdown and a 17-3 lead. Actually, he seemed to continue an Eagles "Monday Night Football" tradition, started by Jackson at Dallas, of inexplicably flipping the ball away just short of the goal line, but at least he flipped it ahead, unlike Jackson, and then he ran over to it in the end zone and grabbed it. So there was nothing for the Browns to challenge.
Then the Eagles drove to the Browns' 1 in the final seconds of the half. With 9 seconds left, second-and-goal, actually from inside the 1, no timeouts left, a really daring thing to do would have been to run a quarterback sneak. A really dumb thing to do was attempt a weak fade to Baskett, against the secondary with the second-most picks in the league coming into last weekend. McDonald got position on Baskett, took the ball, away, and headed for the opposite end zone.
It ought to be against the rules to give up a touchdown on the final play of the first half 2 weeks in a row. Fortunately for the Eagles, Brian Westbrook made McDonald slow down and Baskett finally caught him at the Birds' 7, time long since having expired.
After David Akers' 34-yard field goal made it 20-3 in the third, the Birds had gotten the ball five times and driven into the Browns' red zone every time, which doesn't happen all that often. Sav Rocca looked a tad lonely on the sideline. The Eagles made it 6-for-6 the next time they got the ball, Akers connecting from 34 yards for a 23-3 lead.
It was 7-for-7 when McNabb converted Bradley's interception into a two-play, 37-yard touchdown drive. McNabb hit Greg Lewis from 10 yards out and it was 30-3, with 11:14 left.
"It was very important, playing against a team like this, where you don't want 'em hanging around, to be able to start early and sustain drives," McNabb said.
Rocca finally got to punt after Kevin Kolb replaced McNabb. He looked a little rusty (Rocca, not Kolb, though the same could be said for the backup QB), punting only 36 yards, with 7:22 left in the game.
McDonald finally got his touchdown, by the way, running a Kolb pick in from 24 yards.
When the game ended in a misty rain, the Eagles had piled up a 37:55-22:05 edge in time of possession, 418 to 196 in net yardage. They'd converted 11 of 17 third downs to Cleveland's three of 12.
The new-look ball control offense is saving the defense a lot of wear and tear down the stretch. The Eagles had one drive last night that covered a relatively modest 64 yards and netted only three points, but ran 7:50 off the clock.
"It helps out," defensive tackle Mike Patterson said. "I appreciate our offense for doing that." *
For more Eagles coverage and opinion, read the Daily News' Eagles blog, Eagletarian, at www.eagletarian.com.