LANDOVER, Md. - The Eagles got what they deserved yesterday, every last shovel full. And they knew it, all of them, from coach Andy Reid on down. There was clarity in their disaster. They looked themselves and the playoffs in the mirror and they blinked. Nobody could even pretend to kid himself.
They botched it, spectacularly. Destiny was in their hands and then it was clanking off of DeSean Jackson's, or L.J. Smith's, or Asante Samuel's. "It's simple: Catch the ball," tackle Jon Runyan said, tersely, eloquently, finally.
The thing was theirs. The Tampa Bay Bucs handed it to them just before the Eagles took the field against the Redskins. They had fought and clawed their way from oblivion over the last few weeks and the bright shining light of the playoffs was finally in view. They were in control. All they needed was two more wins, starting yesterday with the reeling Redskins.
So much work. So much digging. But the Eagles had done it. It was theirs. All of the carping and all of the midseason recriminations were about to be buried. They were favored, they were the better team, the more complete team, the more versatile team, the more explosive team, the hotter team, the destined team.
It was theirs. And then it wasn't. Destiny, ha.
On defense, they were very good again but missed in a couple of big spots, especially a dropped fourth-quarter interception by Samuel that would have flipped the field. On offense, they refused to run the ball in the second half and they couldn't catch the ball, including two killer drops by Jackson in the fourth quarter, one of them in the end zone with about a minute to go.
Samuel: "I dropped it . . . "
Jackson: "I feel both of them should have been caught . . . "
No excuses then. Because those plays weren't made, those and others - they dropped at least a half-dozen passes - the Eagles lost to the Redskins, 10-3. That they came close in the end - within inches of Reggie Brown breaking the plane of the end zone after a leaping catch as time expired - should be little solace to anybody who is a fan of realism. Because it was close but it really wasn't close.
"Terrible" was the word Reid used at one point to describe his offense, and he hit it exactly.
And now, with the coroner on speed-dial, the Eagles' fate is left in the hands of others. Ridiculously, - even more ridiculous, given the faulty execution, than the team calling 16 consecutive pass plays from the middle of the third quarter until late in the fourth - Reid seemed not to know that the Eagles were still alive until reporters told him after the game.
Or maybe he was just hoping he would be able to shave for Christmas.
In the NFC, there is one wild card left after Atlanta (10-5) claimed a playoff spot with its win yesterday at Minnesota. For the Eagles to get in, the scenario goes like this: They need to beat the Cowboys to get to 9-6-1 and the Bucs have to lose to the Raiders to fall to 9-7, and then one of two other things needs to happen: Either the Vikings have to lose to the Giants and fall to 9-7 or the Bears have to lose one of their final two games to finish no better than 9-7.
It is complicated now, like a car crash on black ice. That is what the Eagles have been reduced to rooting for, chaos and carnage.
"I don't even care what scenario . . . " safety Brian Dawkins said. "I don't even care right now."
Minutes earlier, cornerback Sheldon Brown was sitting at his locker, fumbling with his wristwatch, trying to make sense of it all. Because, on the one hand, Brown insists that this team is as talented as any Eagles team he has been on, and maybe more talented. But there has been this maddening inconsistency that just keeps resurfacing. They try to keep it hidden, and they do for periods of time, but it keeps getting away from them, like a cork popping out of the water.
They're better than this on paper, is what Brown was saying. But he has been around long enough to know, even before the disaster that was yesterday afternoon.
As he said, his honesty tinged with sadness, "Paper don't mean crap." *
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