THE EAGLES stand on the cusp of a truly remarkable accomplishment.
Last year, they were the only team in the NFL to miss the playoffs despite finishing in the league's top 10 in offense and defense.
Now, unless several dominoes fall their way Sunday, they will repeat that feat.
The 8-6-1 Birds enter their final contest of the regular season ranked third among NFL defenses and eighth among NFL offenses. Last year, they had the eighth-ranked offense and the 10th-ranked defense.
One such year might be a coincidence. Two years? That ought to be impossible. The only 2008 NFL team in a similar position is this Sunday's opponent, Dallas, which has a far simpler road to the postseason, needing only to beat the Eagles to get in. The Cowboys are ranked ninth in offense, eighth in defense.
Ask around the Eagles' locker room about how a team can accomplish so much that amounts to so little and there are several theories, all of which, one way or another, come down to this: The Eagles, for 2 years now, have been a team that does not close the deal. Although most people around the team won't say so, this year that failure is almost completely the fault of the offense, which failed to even score a touchdown in crucial losses at Baltimore and Washington; was primarily responsible for the awful 13-13 tie at Cincinnati; and couldn't score from the Bears' goal line in a loss at Chicago.
"So many close games," defensive coordinator Jim Johnson said yesterday. "It comes down to a few plays you've got to come up with. I still feel we're as good as any team there is in the NFL. We're just not coming up with the big play to win the game."
It should be noted, Johnson wasn't singling out the offense there. He agreed that had the Eagles intercepted either of the Jason Campbell passes they dropped last Sunday, they could have turned the game around.
But the defense allowed the Redskins all of 10 points, seven of those after Donovan McNabb fumbled the ball away on his 18. No rational person blames the defense for that loss. (A lot might depend there on how you classify coach Andy Reid, who repeatedly has referred to the defense getting off to a slow start last week, because of one lengthy drive that resulted in a Washington field goal.)
When the Eagles last faced the Cowboys, in Week 2, the situation was entirely different. Although the offense did fail in the clutch - that fumble McNabb failed to tuck into Brian Westbrook's midsection with the Birds seemed poised to add to a fourth-quarter lead - when you lose 41-37, you have to look at the defense.
Johnson did. More than 3 months later, he has changed Brian Dawkins' role (you probably won't see "Dawk" in single coverage against Terrell Owens this time), made Akeem Jordan his weakside linebacker, gotten more consistent nickel corner play from Joselio Hanson than he was getting from Lito Sheppard. The defensive-line rotation has solidified, although it will miss foot-injury victim Victor Abiamiri.
"It's come a long way. I think we're a much better defense now," Johnson said. "I think our coverage has been really good. Especially on third down, we've done a good job of getting people off the field. That's the biggest thing I've really noticed. Plus, maybe doing a good job against the run, [leading to] getting 'em in third-and-long and getting 'em off the field."
Defensive end Trent Cole agreed that "we've learned a lot. We've learned how to adjust to a lot of things teams have done to try to make their way around us or through us . . . I think we're one of the best defenses in the league."
One of the things Johnson wanted to change in 2008, the biggest reason for the $57 million signing of free-agent corner Asante Samuel, was the Eagles' standing in takeaways. They managed only 19 in 2007, lowest in the league, and were minus-8 - the offense giving the ball away 27 times. This season, they have 24 takeaways, which is better, but probably not as good as Johnson might have hoped, especially since the offense has given the ball away 25 times, making the Birds a minus-1 overall.
That's what strong safety Quintin Mikell pointed to when asked the reason for the disparity between the Eagles' statistical standing and their record.
"We didn't get enough [turnovers], and we had too many," Mikell said. "That makes a big difference in a lot of these games . . . We gave away too many games early [in the season] and we had too many turnovers early."
Mikell was asked about the fact that some fans will want to blow up the team - particularly the offense - if the Birds miss the playoffs. Their season will be over if they don't get a Tampa loss and either a Minnesota or a Chicago loss early Sunday, then beat Dallas. Mikell didn't exactly plead for the status quo.
"The bottom line is, we didn't play up to our level this year," he said. "We still have a shot, but at the beginning of the season, I didn't think we'd be in the situation we're [in] right now. So, I don't know."
Mikell said he did not want to single out one unit.
"There's times where one's got to make up for the other," he said. "We were struggling early; the offense made up for it . . . it's a whole team thing."
Defensive end Darren Howard didn't mention turnovers, but he seemed to be getting at some of the same things.
"You get those numbers from averages," Howard said. "Sometimes we have great numbers one game, and not-so-great numbers another game. Those averages are going to look good at the end of the season. Inconsistency doesn't get you very far, as far as the playoffs." *
For more Eagles coverage and opinion, read the Daily News' Eagles blog, Eagletarian, at www.eagletarian.com.