THE HEARTBREAK for
Eagles fans is that this team is on a roll as good as any team's in the NFL, and it might not matter.
Three weeks ago, the Birds were coming off a blowout loss at Baltimore that had been preceded by a more embarrassing tie against the pathetic Cincinnati Bengals.
Quarterback Donovan McNabb had been benched, and head coach Andy Reid was feeling more heat than he'd ever felt during his decade in Philadelphia.
I wrote that the Reid era had run its course and that he should be replaced after the season.
Only the most optimistic Eagles fan believed that a team in such duress could find the chutzpah to win its final five games, reach 10 victories and make the NFC playoffs.
Three weeks later, after last night's 30-10 whipping of the Cleveland Browns at Lincoln Financial Field, the Eagles haven't merely positioned themselves to make that run of the table, they are playing the type of football that makes the playoffs a possible outcome.
"We put everything together and we're playing some pretty good ball right now," Eagles safety Brian Dawkins said. "We are a very, very confident group and we're looking forward to this next game."
The Birds have looked so dominant in beating Arizona, the Giants in New York, and now Cleveland, it's hard to think they won't keep things going at Washington on Sunday and in the season finale at home against Dallas. This, however, is where the heartbreak comes.
Even if the Birds finish on a five-game win streak and actually reach 10 victories, the current wild-card standings make it an iffy proposition, at best, that they will qualify for the playoffs. Ten victories might not be enough.
"You can't worry about that right now," Reid said. "You take care of the things that you can control . . . I hope we're looking at our scoreboard. We need to make sure we're concentrating on the Philadelphia Eagles and nobody else."
Unfortunately, a few somebody elses will have a big say in the Eagles' playoff fortunes, no matter what the Birds do.
There is a solid possibility that 10 wins won't be good enough in the NFC this year. Only once since the NFL expanded the postseason to six teams per conference in 1990 were 10 wins not good enough for an NFC wild-card berth. That was in 1991, when the San Francisco 49ers, Falcons, and, yes, the Eagles all finished 10-6. Atlanta got in the playoffs on a tiebreaker.
Sunday was not a good day for the Eagles. The Birds got none of the help they needed if they are to pull off a miracle backdoor entrance into the playoffs.
Four teams remain ahead of them and control their fates in reaching the playoffs. With 11 wins, the Carolina Panthers are in the playoffs ahead of the Eagles, most likely as the NFC South winner. At 9-5, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Atlanta Falcons and Dallas Cowboys all have a half-game lead over the 8-5-1 Eagles.
If Tampa Bay and Atlanta both win their final two games, the Birds are out of the playoffs, regardless of what they do.
The Eagles and Cowboys end the season at the Linc on Dec. 28, so, obviously, both can't win out to finish the season. The way things stand, this NFC East clash could mean everything to either team, or nothing.
Had the Cowboys lost to the Giants Sunday, it would have benefited the Eagles, because that would have given Dallas an all-important sixth loss, which would make it possible for the Eagles' tie with Cincinnati to actually be a positive difference in the standings.
The bigger complication for the Birds was that the Falcons beat the Buccaneers, 13-10, in overtime. On one hand, the loss brought Tampa Bay back into the mix by giving it a fifth loss, but the Eagles would have benefited more had the Falcons lost their sixth game.
Now, both Tampa and Atlanta are in complete control of their playoff lives. If those two NFC South rivals win their final two games, each will have 11 wins, eliminating the Eagles from the wild card, regardless of what they do in their final two games.
Despite their stumbles in the past 2 weeks against Carolina and Atlanta, Tampa Bay seems in good position with its final two games against AFC West mutts San Diego (6-8) and Oakland (3-11) at Raymond James Stadium, where Tampa is 6-0.
Atlanta certainly could stumble on Sunday at Minnesota, where the Vikings will look to clinch the NFC North with a victory.
But if the Falcons get by Minnesota, you have to believe they will beat the lowly St. Louis Rams at Atlanta in their regular-season closer.
It would be a sad twist if the Eagles run the table and reach 10 wins, yet miss out on the playoffs because Atlanta has 11 victories.
Three weeks ago, it looked as if the Eagles had no chance of running the table, winning five straight games and making the playoffs.
Today, it looks as if the Eagles probably will accomplish the first two, but there's a strong chance it still won't matter. *
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