GLENDALE, Ariz. - It may be that the Eagles are a team of destiny after all, but not the one hoped for by the players and their fans.

After yesterday's unexpected 32-25 loss to the Arizona Cardinals in the NFC championship game, the last step before the Super Bowl, it just might be that destiny is not meant to be their friend.

Under coach Andy Reid, the Eagles have now advanced to this game five times and lost four of them. Their one Super Bowl appearance under Reid was also a loss, which means the Eagles are 1-5 in postseason games after the two preliminary rounds.

Not only is that a prescription for ultimate disappointment for the fans, it is the raw material for a reputation of finding a way to fail in the biggest games.

That's a destiny, too, and after yesterday's disappointment against a team they had beaten by four touchdowns on Thanksgiving, it seems like theirs.

"You never say 'the next time.' You can't do that in this thing. That's not how it works," said Reid. "I'm hurting for all the guys. This year's different from other years. They're all different."

That part is true, but all have ended the same way - with a loss.

This season was the most unusual of any year in which they reached a conference championship, however. They drifted through the schedule, beset somewhat by injuries and by mental mistakes and missed assignments. At the nadir of their season, after a 36-7 loss in Baltimore during which quarterback Donovan McNabb was benched at halftime, the Eagles were 5-5-1 and a very unlikely candidate to even make the postseason.

But they revived, began to play especially good defense, and won four of their final five games. They still needed unexpected upsets in other games on the last day of the regular season to enter the playoffs. All of that fell into line and then, when they beat Minnesota and the defending champion New York Giants, it did seem like a magical ending would be fitting.

It turns out that the Eagles aren't the Phillies, however, even if Reid and manager Charlie Manuel had become texting buddies during the last several weeks. There must have been at least one text Manuel forgot to send, something about how to finish the job.

Playing against a team with the skimpiest of postseason histories, a team that lost four of its final six games in the regular season, the Eagles took the field yesterday and regressed.

The players insist they had not taken the Cardinals lightly, even though the 24-6 deficit at the end of the first half made it seem that way. Instead, they became the team they had been at midseason, committing assignment mistakes, blowing coverages and looking as if they didn't belong in the game - even against the Arizona Cardinals.

"In the first half, they were playing on adrenaline and the fans," McNabb said. "The second half told the tale."

He meant that the Eagles proved themselves to be the better team on the field during the second half. Unfortunately, the Cardinals still got to keep the points they amassed in the first half. McNabb did lift them back into the lead in the fourth quarter, but then the defense lost its momentum and the Cardinals drove 72 yards to the winning touchdown.

Yes, every year is different, but it's always something. And the something this time was not the opponent. It was the Eagles.

"It's disappointing," running back Brian Westbrook said. "I think we're a better team than we showed on the field today. But you're only as good as what you put out there. Today wasn't our A game."

The real question is whether yesterday's loss was part of a beginning or was it an ending. How many more chances will McNabb have to get to a Super Bowl? How many more chances will Reid be given?

If the strides taken late in the season by the Eagles lead to something for the future, that's one thing. If they are merely footsteps going nowhere, then is it merely one more year that has fallen off the calendar.

In some ways, because the Super Bowl was so close and because the Cardinals seemed so beatable, it would have been better for the way the Eagles are perceived heading into the off-season if they had lost a well-played, exciting game to the Giants the week before.

Losing to the defending champs is more acceptable than losing to a team that hasn't won a title since 1947 - especially after coming back from 18 points down to take the lead.

"It's always tough to get this close and feel like you were a couple plays away, a couple minutes away," McNabb said. "You look up at the scoreboard and see you lost. The confetti comes down. It's tough."

Having been through it before, even several times, does not make it easier. In fact, at this stage of things, it might make yesterday harder to take.

Destiny doesn't really care. It isn't about growing beards for unity, or hooking onto the civic winning streak started by the baseball team. It isn't about winning one for older players who might not be back, or about slogans or numerology or painted faces.

Destiny is only a bystander, because the truth is that teams get to make their own. Unfortunately, that might be what the Eagles have done.

Bob Ford:

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