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Eagles win, wonder what could have been

After the Eagles won their epic struggle for mediocrity with a 17-9 conquering of the Buffalo Bills today at Lincoln Financial Field, there were only a few things left to ask the head coach and players during their exit interviews.

After the Eagles won their epic struggle for mediocrity with a 17-9 conquering of the Buffalo Bills today at Lincoln Financial Field, there were only a few things left to ask the head coach and players during their exit interviews.

How would you describe this 8-8 season that started with an Edward Scissorhands loss in Green Bay and ended with three straight victories that apparently were good for the team's heart and soul but not enough for a cherished invitation to the postseason party?

Eight-and-eight has never been a reason to celebrate.

"It's easy to sit back and say it's frustrating, but it was more or less a test for all of us," quarterback Donovan McNabb said. "I thought we missed on a lot of opportunities throughout the season and we kind of paid for it. That's why we're sitting here now with the season over."

That's more than a fair assessment. McNabb's ninth season in the league was certainly a test for the quarterback, and it included plenty of midseason calls for his ouster.

McNabb returned to his starting role during that game in Green Bay a little more than 10 months after undergoing surgery to repair a torn anterior cruciate ligament in his right knee. Less mobile and seemingly less confident, the quarterback struggled to lead the offense to touchdowns even as running back Brian Westbrook did amazing things around him.

Westbrook, by the way, completed one of the greatest seasons ever by an Eagles running back with 99 yards from scrimmage against a Bills team that finished 7-9 and left you wondering how it won that many games. Westbrook set single-season franchise records for yards from scrimmage with 2,104 and receptions with 90.

Far too often, however, Westbrook's yards did not add up to touchdowns for the Eagles, who went into the season finale as the 24th-ranked team in scoring touchdowns inside the 20-yard line and continued to struggle in that department.

McNabb said that was his biggest frustration this season, and it remained a problem right to the end as the Eagles managed just one touchdown during three trips inside the 20 against the Bills.

"I think that's the case for all of us on the offensive side, because we know what we are capable of doing," McNabb said. "We know what we were able to do in certain games, and if that had been consistent, we'd be sitting here with a different record and being able to play next week."

The Eagles' lone score inside the red zone against Buffalo came on a first-quarter touchdown pass from McNabb to rookie tight end Brent Celek on a third-and-goal play from the 2-yard line. A McNabb interception ended an Eagles scoring threat early in the second quarter, and a first-down sack eventually forced the home team to settle for a David Akers field goal just before halftime.

"We're not very far off," Westbrook said when asked about the offense. "We made some mistakes. Even today we made some mistakes – penalties, turnovers, things like that definitely hurt us. To be a better offense, we shouldn't have those types of things."

Even with the missed opportunities, the Eagles' 10 first-half points were enough to win the game because the defense did not surrender a touchdown for the fifth time all season and the second time in three games.

The Eagles' red-zone defense was the team's greatest strength all season and again today. Buffalo traveled inside the Eagles' 20-yard line four times and settled for three field goals. On the Bills' final trip inside the 20, rookie running back Marshawn Lynch was stopped short of a first down by linebacker Akeem Jordan and cornerback Sheldon Brown on a fourth-and-1 play.

"This is the best defense that I've been on since we went to the Super Bowl," Brown said. "How many teams scored more than 17 points on us? That's our goal."

The answer to Brown's question is eight. The point he was making is that this Eagles defense is good enough to win even if it finished last in the NFL in creating turnovers with 19.

Of course, the only other question worth asking after an 8-8 season is this: How do the Eagles get back to being a Super Bowl contender after failing to reach the playoffs for the second time in three years?

"It's easy to say that we are close," McNabb said. ". . . I think what we've seen in these last couple weeks is a team that continues to fight no matter what the situation is and a young defense that is stepping up and playing well. But I think this is going to be an important off-season for us. We have to focus on a lot of different things and obviously bring pieces in to help us out for next year and the years to come. For the guys that are here, we have to elevate our games."

That's the second time in the last three weeks that McNabb has said the Eagles need some outside help, and there's reason to believe he'll get some.

"Every season you tweak it a little bit," coach Andy Reid said. "Right now, my hat goes off to the guys we have. I think they did a nice job. I know everybody won't be back. That's the nature of the NFL. We'll get on that as time goes on here. Tweaks will take place, but right now I'm not concerned about that. But I know things will happen."

What exactly those "tweaks" will be won't be known until the free-agent market opens in March, but as the Eagles said goodbye to their season today, they seemed confident that they can turn 8-8 in 2007 to something great in 2008.

"We will be a contender again," Reid said.

A year from now, we'll know if the head coach made good on his vow.