AT TIMES, the Eagles' offense seemed to be shoveling snow with a rake.
But the plays were there when it really mattered, and the Birds ground out a 27-13 victory over the San Francisco 49ers that put Andy Reid's team in the playoffs for the eighth time in his 11 seasons.
Last week, remember, it was the defense's turn to make things harder than they needed to be. That unit came out determined to make amends yesterday. The 49ers went 0-for-11 on third downs and turned the ball over four times in the first half, which ended with the Eagles up, 20-3.
Had the Birds' offense been in a similar mode, everyone could have gone home and gotten warm early in the third quarter, but Donovan McNabb was way less sharp than he has been lately, and San Francisco, which came in clinging to frayed playoff possiilities at 6-7, actually got within 20-13 before McNabb used his get-out-of-jail free card, hitting DeSean Jackson on third-and-2 for 59 yards of the 89 the Eagles traveled in their clinching drive.
Reid carefully praised his 10-4 team afterward for "working through that game," which isn't quite the same thing as saying, "Boy, we sure played great."
Reid, like his players, almost had to be reminded that the combination of Dallas' victory over New Orleans Saturday night and the Birds' win yesterday clinched at least a spot in the wild-card round for an Eagles team that now has run off a five-game victory streak.
"I haven't even thought about the playoffs," said Reid, who wants the focus to remain on Denver next week and then winning at Dallas, which would get the Birds the NFC East title and a possible first-round bye. "I'm not there yet. I'm proud of our guys, the way they worked through a bunch of different situations. They've stayed focused, the coaches and players."
Yesterday, the Birds benefited from a wretched performance by 49ers quarterback Alex Smith, who threw three first-half interceptions that should have buried his team deeper than that cell phone you dropped in the driveway early in Saturday's December-record 23.2-inch snowstorm.
How bad was Smith?
The Eagles lost a chance to score points near the end of the first half when a third-and-11 pass to the end zone seemed to slip out of McNabb's hands, wobbling straight to corner Shawntae Spencer for an interception. After the 49ers gained 7 yards on their first snap, the Eagles called timeout, with 36 seconds left in the half, San Francisco second-and-3 from its 27.
Why? The cynical press box view was that they were hoping Smith would throw his third pick of the half, and sure enough, he did, right away. Trying to avoid a Juqua Parker sack, Smith lobbed the ball to Eagles' linebacker Tracy White, and then David Akers kicked a 26-yard field goal to set the 20-3 halftime score.
At halftime, Smith's quarterback rating was 11.8. A QB rating considerably lower than the snow accumulation is never a good thing.
"He had a bad game. Great quarterbacks have bad games," said 49ers coach Mike Singletary, who said he did not have any questions about moving forward with Smith as his starter.
Smith seemed to have problems with the Eagles' unconventional blitz packages. The front four got a much better push than it had a week earlier, when the Birds gave up 512 yards in beating the Giants.
"It kept him off balance," White said, after describing how the Eagles disguised blitzes. "He didn't know which way the pressure was coming."
McNabb (21-for-36, a touchdown on the first drive of the game, two picks and a 72.2 passer rating) certainly did not have a great game, but he regrouped after his second pick, thrown on the run, across his body, into double coverage, trying to find Jackson. If you're going to try to force the ball to somebody, that's the guy to try to force it to, but McNabb had plenty of running room in front of him and a 20-6 lead at the time, as he noted afterward.
"There were throws that I definitely would want back," McNabb said. "Kind of uncharacteristic of myself, just trying to force some things . . . You don't want to get caught up in the whole forcing game. I think when you get caught up in the whole forcing game, things go negative. [Jackson] broke free a little bit, got some daylight . . . They just covered up well. Great interception by Dre Bly."
It was hard to say the weather had much of an effect on the game. The field was pristine - looked better than it has in a while, actually. Parking lots generally seemed clear, if pathways were treacherous. Most of the stadium seemed clear of snow, with the odd exception of sections 111, 112 and 113 in the end zone closest I-95. Apparently, there was a good bit left in the upper level on the Eagles' side, since much of it ended up in the lower level and along the sideline late in the game, thrown in the form of snowballs, though neither Ed Rendell nor Santa seemed to be involved.
The Eagles have made the playoffs three times now since their Super Bowl appearance following the 2004 season. This is the first time since that year the berth hasn't involved some sort of late-season miracle. If you remember last season, that almost isn't even hyperbole.
"This year, it's a lot smoother," Jackson said after catching six passes for 140 yards and a touchdown. "Last year, we had to deal with a lot of adversity, a couple of losses we should have won. This year, I feel like we're setting ourselves up great for the playoffs."
Wideout Jason Avant saw "a lot of tuning up to do."
"We made some mistakes out there today," Avant said. "We've just got to be in better position . . . It's not like, because we made the playoffs, let's just go on cruise control. Right now it's fine-tuning, because when we get to the playoffs, we want to be clicking on every cylinder."
Just as was the case last week, the best moment was probably the clinching drive. The Eagles went 89 yards in eight plays, restoring a 14-point margin on a 2-yard, third-and-1 run by rookie LeSean McCoy. McCoy (nine carries, 48 yards) broke Correll Buckhalter's franchise rookie record of 586 rushing yards. McCoy has 606 yards on 148 carries.
Two plays in, the Birds faced third-and-2 from their 19. They hadn't scored, or even come close to scoring, in the second half. But Jackson got behind former Eagles safety Michael Lewis on the right sideline, with Lewis too late to help a beaten corner. McNabb made the throw, and 59 yards later it was first down at the 49ers' 22.
"It was a tight formation," Jackson said. "We worked on it all week. I came off the ball like I was going to go out, like I was running an out route. The corner tried to guard me. I could tell he was sitting on it. I was able to get right by him."
The Eagles got 4 yards on a pass to Avant, then ran the ball the final 18 yards (yes, really), three cracks into the line by Leonard Weaver followed by the scoring run from McCoy.
Afterward, Reid spoke of Weaver "doing what he did in Seattle." But Weaver, in three seasons as a Seahawk, never carried the ball more than eight times in a game. He toted it 17 times yesterday, for 52 yards.
"It's not that we're not excited [about making the playoffs]," he said. "It's something we expect . . . We're happy, but we know the work is not done."
"Never good enough," defensive coordinator Sean McDermott said when asked about clinching that trip to the playoffs in his first year succeeding the late Jim Johnson. "We're not going to stop working hard. We're going to keep pushing."
Michael Vick, so much a part of things the previous 2 weeks, seemed to be headed toward a healthy role this time, as well, before he suffered a thigh contusion while being stopped short on third-and-1 from the Eagles' 29 near the end of the first quarter. "We'll just see how he does this week," Andy Reid said . . . Third tight end Martin Rucker was inactive, an early sign that Brent Celek's back was OK . . . Ex-Eagles safety Michael Lewis had a dreadful first half, but another Eagles alum, linebacker Takeo Spikes, seemed to play very well . . . ESPN's Adam Schefter reported yesterday that Eagles general manager Tom Heckert is one of three candidates for the Seattle GM job, which presumably would entail final say in personnel, something Heckert doesn't have here. Last offseason, the Birds seemed to be all but pushing Heckert out the door. His contract runs through next season . . . For the second week in a row, Reid actually won a replay challenge, correctly discerning that Leonard Weaver caught and did not trap a low Donovan McNabb throw on the first drive, which was the ninth time this season the Eagles have scored a touchdown on their opening drive, by the way . . . The drive was set up by a 48-yard Quintin Demps return of the opening kickoff . . . Asante Samuel has eight interceptions, the Eagles' highest total since Eric Allen had eight in 1989. The team record is Bill Bradley's 11 in 1971.
For more Eagles coverage and opinion, read the Daily News' Eagles blog, Eagletarian, at www.eagletarian.com.