The tunnel was buzzing with activity, and yet, just like her husband, Connie Dawkins stood out in the crowd. It wasn't just her fuzzy orange coat. It was her presence. She was like a rock star, with a parade of people, mostly wives of players, coming by to say hello after the Denver Broncos lost the Brian Dawkins homecoming game to the Eagles, 30-27, last night.

"I am, in a way, glad this is over," Connie Dawkins said. "I think I was more nervous about it than anything. But we're OK. And he's fine. He was worked up like all the other games."

Only this game wasn't like all the other games, and Connie Dawkins knew it. For her husband, this game was against family. It was like fighting your brother. Only worse.

That's why Dawkins didn't set foot on the Lincoln Financial Field turf until exactly 4:03 p.m., when his name was called over the loudspeaker. He couldn't bring himself to come out for pregame warm-ups. It would've been too hard. He wouldn't have had a drop of energy left for his teammates.

"If he would've came out and warmed up for the game, he would've had to take an IV," Sheldon Brown said, and he wasn't joking.

As it was, Dawkins nearly exhausted himself before the Broncos' defense ever got on the field. He was serenaded by chants of "Brian Dawkins" from a classy crowd that included many folks in green No. 20 jerseys.

After he was introduced, Dawkins crouched down and took a few steps, as he had so many times before out of the opposite tunnel. He did a somersault and then flipped backward into a handstand and sprinted toward his teammates, almost taking out a photographer chronicling the routine.

Dawkins was in constant motion on the sideline. He didn't sit down once. He paced during the coin flip, swayed during the national anthem, and stood on the sideline as the Broncos' offense got the ball first.

All the while, Dawkins never took off his helmet. It was as if his tinted visor could protect him from the truth - that this was perhaps the hardest game emotionally that he ever had to play.

"I've been in a lot of big games before, but it was tough to control my emotions, real tough," Dawkins said. "Mainly, because we needed this game so bad on top of coming home. It was those things put together. It was real tough."

After Brown leveled Brandon Marshall with an especially hard hit in the first quarter, Brown pointed at Dawkins, who nodded.

"Sheldon is a brother of mine and still a great friend of mine," Dawkins said. "He was doing that out of respect. Those are the types of things I expected from those guys. We went to battle, went to war, for many years, and we built something there."

There was a lot of that in a game in which Dawkins was to blame for a couple of big plays, including Donovan McNabb's touchdown pass to Brent Celek in the second quarter. There were times when it looked as if Dawkins knew exactly what the Eagles were going to do, especially when Brian Westbrook was on the field. And there were times when even that couldn't help him, not that that made him unique.

The Broncos, unlike the Eagles, are fading at the end of the year. After starting the season 6-0, they have lost seven of their last nine and will need serious help to get into the playoffs. The Eagles have won six straight and are feeling pretty good about themselves, as they should, at 11-4.

When this one was over, Dawkins slipped into a flashy black suit with white pinstripes, topped off by a black hat, and went to see his former teammates. He disappeared into the training room, where he saw Andy Reid and Jeffrey Lurie, among others.

"I just love watching him," Lurie said.

But not enough to keep Dawkins. Did he regret that decision? I asked Lurie.

"No, I rely on our [personnel] guys, so no," he said. "It wasn't that. He's great. The free agency system is what it is."

And so Dawkins is a Bronco, and this game is finally past. For that everyone was thankful, perhaps no one more so than Dawkins' wife.

Contact columnist Ashley Fox at 215-854-5064 or afox@phillynews.com.