GLENDALE, Ariz. - The right words are so elusive on days such as this one. It does not get any easier, no matter how many times you witness the failure.

Five championship games. Four losses. Three losses as the favored team. Just the facts.

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You watch the Eagles as they go about the postgame rituals. Most of the players stare blankly, mouth platitudes, get dressed and get out. They do this for a living. They learn to shake off disappointment because it is a part of the job description, even this kind of disappointment, even another loss in the NFC Championship Game.

Two time zones and nearly 2,000 miles away, though, are the loyal green millions. You wonder where they will find the strength to wake up this morning. Because this football team tortured the paying customers for the better part of 6 months this season and then it water-boarded them again yesterday for 60 minutes.

It was the exact same hell: infuriating start, furious comeback, then splat. It was maddening. It was identical. It was microcosm-by-de Sade - and that still does not begin to describe Cardinals 32, Eagles 25.

And one guy got it. You knew he would.

"I want to apologize to the fans," said Brian Dawkins, one of a handful of Eagles to play in all of these championship games. "We really thought this was it. We went out and we gave what we could but we came up short. I want to apologize to them."

Dawkins said, "They were so great on our run. It took a lot more belief than just in the locker room for us to be where we were."

The Eagles were supposed to win this game. The people in Las Vegas said so. The facts said so. It wasn't going to be as easy as their romp over Arizona on Thanksgiving night, but they were supposed to win - just as they were over Carolina following the 2003 season and Tampa Bay following the 2002 season. That was the football reality. They were better - just as they were better than 9-6-1 during the regular season.

But they came out meekly. That is the plain truth. They moved the ball but settled for field goals on offense. They didn't pressure Cardinals quarterback Kurt Warner, which enabled him and receiver Larry Fitzgerald to make the Eagles look impotent on defense. It was 24-6 at the half.

Meekly. Just the fact.

But then they made the obligatory comeback, and it was a sight. When Donovan McNabb hit rookie DeSean Jackson with that monstrous, deflected heave to make it 25-24 with about 10 minutes to go, it was just like that final Sunday of the regular season, when the Bucs lost and the Bears lost and the Eagles buried the Cowboys to sneak into the playoffs. It was that spectacularly improbable.

As running back Correll Buckhalter said, "After that catch, I told [teammate Brian] Westbrook, 'We're not losing this game.' But I was wrong . . . I felt like we were the better team but we didn't show it today. We fought and we were hungry, but the final result is that they're going to the Super Bowl and we're not."

Why? It was because the Cardinals methodically gutted the Eagles' defense and retook the lead on a long, wrenching drive. McNabb's detractors will say that he had one more chance with the ball and didn't come through, but this is the wrong emphasis. Again, Dawkins had the correct reply:

"We defensively did not get off the field when we were supposed to. They did their job and we did not. They drove the field. They got us points. We went ahead. Defensively, we have to get off the field but we didn't."

They have blinked so often in the bright lights that you wonder what it is they can do at this point. They have failed to play their best, again and again. As Sheldon Brown said, "It seems like a decade ago since we made it to this point. It's just tough."

There is no such thing as scar tissue. There is no such thing as getting used to these emotional depths. That much was obvious.

As Brian Dawkins said, "If you burn your hand, no matter how you burn it, it still hurts . . . It still hurts, regardless of what happened in the past."

Even if it has happened four times now, three times as the favorite. *

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