The Cleveland Browns provided two services to the Eagles tonight. They served as the closest thing to a sure win the NFL provides, and they gave Andy Reid a chance to get all the red-zone and clock-management follies out of his system. Reid graciously responded by emptying his bag of tics.
Cutesy play on third and goal that backfires? Check.
Lack of attention to the ticking clock near the end of the first half? Roger.
A time-out followed by an illegal formation and a high-risk play call? Three for three.
Happily for Reid, you can turn two must-score situations into interceptions against the dead-eyed Browns and still get a win. It was a necessary win, too. The Eagles are now set up for two games against NFC East rivals that will make or break their season. Win at Washington next Sunday and at home against Dallas on Dec. 28 and the Eagles will finish with a 10-5-1 record.
That will be enough to reach the playoffs, provided Atlanta of Tampa Bay loses one of its final two games. That provision is necessary because the Eagles turned another sure win, against Cincinnati, into a tie that negates their head-to-head victory against the Falcons.
On an oddly warm December evening, when conditions would have enabled a relapse into pass-madness, the Eagles' offense was well-balanced. In the first half, the Eagles called 23 pass plays and 16 runs. Despite a pass-heavy stint in the third quarter, they finished with 40 pass calls and 33 runs.
As a result, Donovan McNabb had time and space to complete 26 of his 35 attempts for 290 yards, two touchdowns and an interception.
The problematic pass call didn't involve McNabb at all.
Second quarter. Third and goal at the 7-yard line.
McNabb starts out behind center, then goes in motion to the right. Rookie wide receiver DeSean Jackson takes the snap. Jackson lowers his head and starts forward as if it's a run play, then stops and pushes the ball in the direction of Hank Baskett. Cleveland's Sean Jones intercepts it.
"I wanted to score," Reid said, explaining the play. "A little bit better throw and we're in."
True enough. Baskett was wide open in the end zone. Jackson's throw was awful. The problem is in Reid's reasoning.
Do the Eagles really need to resort to trick plays to beat Cleveland? The Browns were running plays like this because they stink and had little chance otherwise. It follows that the Eagles shouldn't have bothered with such foolishness.
Their next trip inside the Cleveland 10 was worse. The Eagles were running a pretty good two-minute drive, moving from their own 34 to the Cleveland 10. With 47 seconds on the clock, McNabb threw a pass to Brent Celek, who got to the 2-yard line.
By the time Brian Westbrook was tackled short of the goal line on the next play, there were just nine seconds left in the half. The Eagles had allowed between 15 and 20 seconds to evaporate and had to call a time-out. Reid said the officials were looking to spot the ball and failed to notice the Eagles, who were trying to call time-out sooner. But too much time had ticked off before the play.
They came back with a risky outside throw that cornerback Brandon McDonald intercepted and returned 98 yards. It would have (probably should have) been a touchdown if McDonald hadn't run out of steam and if Baskett hadn't kept up full-speed pursuit.
The cause-and-effect here is worrisome. The Eagles were only throwing because they hadn't managed their time. That quick throw, if incomplete into the end zone, would have stopped the clock with enough time to try one last run for a touchdown or to kick a field goal.
Worst of all, there was a penalty on the play. The Eagles came out of a time-out and lined up in an illegal formation. Even if McNabb had thrown a perfect fade to Baskett there, it wouldn't have counted.
"We can't have the mistakes we had [in the red zone]," Reid said. "We've been doing pretty well there. Tonight we didn't do well. Obviously, we have to address it."
The Eagles walked off the field at halftime with a 17-3 lead - with seven of the points courtesy of an interception return by Asante Samuel. They cruised, finally, to a 30-10 victory that will look better in the standings than it did on the field.
All of this may seem like nitpicking. The Eagles took care of their business, after all, and no real harm was done by the red-zone follies in the first half. If the goal is to beat the Cleveland Browns, the Eagles were good enough.
If the goal is to beat Washington and Dallas and do something in the playoffs, they'll have to be better and, more to the point, smarter.