BRIAN DAWKINS dropped to the turf, after his second strip of a Dallas Cowboy in two drives resulted in a second successive fumble return for an Eagles touchdown, and a third-quarter lead big enough to stretch from South Philly to Minnesota.
"Tears of joy," Philadelphia's longest-tenured pro athlete said at the end of the most amazing day of his 13-year career, one of the most amazing days in the city's fairly lengthy sports history.
"I've never been a part of anything like this," Dawkins said.
When the day began, the Web site footballoutsiders.com rated the Eagles' chances of making the playoffs at 9.8 percent. You remember what the situation was, but let's run it down, one more time:
The Vikings had to lose to the Giants or the Bears had to lose to Houston. Then, a four-win Oakland team, a 13-point underdog, had to win at Tampa Bay. Then, the Eagles, when these other games were all concluded, had to beat Dallas, the team everybody said was the NFC's best when the season began, which right now seems like it was several decades ago.
Houston and Oakland won. And with Lincoln Financial Field basking in a sort of half-stunned delirium, as strange and magical as the spring-like weather, the Eagles went out and ravaged their most bitter rivals, 44-6, their largest margin of victory in the history of the rivalry. They didn't just win . . . the outcome was all but settled by halftime, and it definitely was settled midway through the third quarter, after Dawkins took the Cowboys' hearts.
The rest of the game was a New Year's celebration that lacked only the Mummers. You half-expected Andy Reid to hand the headset to a coaching intern when the fourth quarter began, so he could head over to NovaCare to start breaking down film on the 10-6 Vikings, who will host the Birds at 4:30 next Sunday.
Obviously, you can't compare the 9-6-1 Eagles winning a regular-season game to the Phillies winning the World Series, but it sure seemed that maybe a little pixie dust might have wafted across Pattison Avenue.
"I might go to A.C. tonight and put a lot of money on black," said Eagles left guard Todd Herremans. "The stars are aligning . . . I heard whispers, but I didn't know [the Oakland-Tampa final] until after we were playing the game."
Most Eagles said they knew they controlled their own destiny when they took the field, though some said they did not. Running back Correll Buckhalter, one of the day's biggest heroes, said he didn't know Tampa had lost until after his team had won; he said he didn't want somebody else's game to affect the way he played.
That had to be the hardest thing, the Eagles warming up for the game while Oakland trailed in the fourth quarter, the Birds not knowing whether they were about to play their final game of the season, or have a chance at the Super Bowl.
That was the part that Reid talked most about afterward, how challenging all this was mentally and emotionally, squandering control of their destiny a week earlier in Washington, somehow keeping the focus on the Cowboys, and not on other teams in other cities.
"I'm very proud of our guys. They very easily could have lost faith and not prepared themselves right for today," Reid said. "Right from the get-go, it was all about the Cowboys . . . It's very hard to do, and they did it . . . You couldn't have drawn it up any better than it happened today."
"Swoop" the mascot led the home team out of the huge inflatable Eagle head about a second after Jeff Garcia hit the turf in Tampa, sacked on the final play of the Bucs' amazing 31-24 loss to the 5-11 Raiders. The Raiders had trailed by 10 in the fourth quarter. (Yeah, you knew that, but really, think about it again. Good grief.) Eagles fans credited Garcia with getting them into the playoffs in 2006. Who knew he would help them again in 2008? That pick, down four with 6 minutes, 55 seconds left, was really clutch for the Birds, Jeff.
Another 31-24 game, the much more believable Houston win at home over Chicago, clinched the Eagles' path to the postseason.
* It was a 3-3 game into the second quarter, but a 59-yard catch-and-run by Buckhalter set up that rarest of treasures in 2008, the third-and-goal quarterback sneak from the 1. Donovan McNabb gave the Birds the lead for good with 12:16 remaining in the second quarter.
* The Eagles scored 17 points in the final 2:03 of the first half. The best pass McNabb has thrown in several weeks, a 34-yard strike to DeSean Jackson - who set that franchise rookie receiving yards record he'd been stalking - set up a 4-yard TD pass to Buckhalter. Then Tony Romo, who seemed to be channeling Mike McMahon all day, threw a back-foot duck to the sideline that Sheldon Brown picked off and ran back 23 yards to the Dallas 42. Pass interference in the end zone by Terence Newman set up a 1-yard TD pass to Brent Celek. Then Adam "Pacman" Jones fumbled the ensuing kickoff, and with 5 seconds left in the half, the Birds added a 50-yard David Akers field goal. It was 27-3 at halftime.
* The Cowboys put together two drives early in the third quarter that ended in Eagles touchdowns, which is the sort that leads you into historic romp territory. First, Dawkins hit Romo and Chris Clemons scooped and scored from 73 yards. Then Dawkins hit Marion Barber from behind at the Eagles' 5, Barber fumbled, and Joselio Hanson picked the ball up with nothing but yard markers in his path. Ninety-six yards later, it was 41-3, and the last time the Linc rocked so hard, McNabb was holding up the NFC Championship Trophy as confetti flew on a much colder day nearly 4 years ago.
"The two touchdowns in the first two series of the second half, where we got down inside the 20-yard line both times - I can't explain those," said Dallas coach Wade Phillips, whose team entered the day knowing it only needed to win to go to the playoffs. Instead it finished 9-7 and out, after a 4-1 start.
"I know Tony's a guy that's going to try to extend the play with his legs, so I was just trying to get to him as quickly as possible and hopefully get the ball out. I was able to get it out," Dawkins said.
The bounce, unlike so many this season, went straight and true into Clemons' arms. He needed only to stiff-arm a less-than-intent-seeming Tashard Choice at the Cowboys' 5.
"That quickly deflated their hopes" three plays after a 42-yard sort of impromptu flea-flicker seemed to stir the Cowboys to life, Dawkins said.
The second fumble, Dawkins grabbed Barber from behind and spun him. Barber might have been about to try to reach the ball out for the goalline. It flew away, but instead of going out of bounds it died at Hanson's feet.
"You just tell me how that ball stayed in bounds and I was able to punch it back on the field . . . You guys probably roll your eyes when I say it, but I'm a blessed man," Dawkins said.
There was plenty of that to go around. McNabb, 12-for-21 for 175 yards, two TDs and a 116.2 passer rating, was among the redeemed on the most unlikely day of reckoning.
"I've been kind of revived, I guess," McNabb said, after breaking his own franchise record for passing yards in a season, set in 2004. He finished with 3,916, and his offense, despite its well-publicized inconsistencies, set a franchise points record, with 416. "They've thrown me out, they ran over me, spit on me . . . but you know what . . . I just continue to prevail . . . Since y'all talked about me not being in the playoffs the last 4 years, I'm in. It's sweet . . . but I've got a job to do [at Minnesota]."
Dawkins, who missed the Thursday and Friday practices with the flu, left the field in the third quarter to get an IV as he battled cramps. As he jogged toward the tunnel, fans watching stood and cheered one of the franchise's all-time greats, on what could have been his last trip off the home field.
Nobody was thinking about that yesterday evening, though.
"It's the start of something," Dawkins agreed, when someone asked him if this was the start of something special. "We'll see how special it is after playing this [next] game, but it's the start of something." *
For more Eagles coverage and opinion, read the Daily News' Eagles blog, Eagletarian, at www.eagletarian.com.