Every year it seems, as the NFL regular season grinds to an end, there is a game the Eagles point to and say, "If only." Last year, it was the dud against Oakland, a dreadful loss to a horrible team that had it been a win, the Eagles would have hosted their first-round playoff game against Dallas rather than play the Cowboys on the road.
When this season finally finishes up on Sunday, the Eagles very well might look back at that afternoon in Nashville when Titans defensive tackle Jason Jones forced a LeSean McCoy fumble at the Tennessee 3-yard line and turned what looked like an Eagles win into an 18-point L. The Eagles had that game won and in an instant lost their composure. After they blinked, it was over. Kenny Britt had a vintage T.O. performance, and the Eagles limped home with a damaged defense and an inexplicable loss.
Just think if the Eagles had won that game. They would not need Chicago to lose on Sunday at Green Bay. They would be 11-3, instead of 10-4, heading into their historic Tuesday night matchup with Minnesota. They would have a chance at 13-3. That, in all likelihood, would be enough for the No. 2 seed in the NFC.
Never has a first-round bye in the playoffs been as appealing as it is this season, and never has the No. 3 seed looked so cursed.
There is still a lot of football to be played and things can shake out any number of ways. The scenarios in the National Football Conference were so complicated on Monday afternoon that the NFL did not even bother to break them down in its weekly "Playoff Scenarios" e-mail to the media. All the league would project about the Eagles, other than the obvious fact that they had clinched the NFC East, was that the team "still has a chance to earn a first-round bye and home-field advantage next week, as of today."
That was before Atlanta lost to New Orleans on Monday Night Football, but the Falcons would have to lose to Carolina, the worst team in the league, on Sunday to have a chance to give up their No. 1 seed, and that is not going to happen.
What we do know about the Eagles' position is that, because they won their division, at worst they will be the No. 3 seed. The NFC West winner, either St. Louis or Seattle, will be the No. 4 seed, even though neither team deserves to be in the playoffs, much less host a playoff game. The remaining wild-card teams will be Nos. 5 and 6.
For my money, there are two teams - New Orleans and Green Bay, in that order - I would least like to play if I'm the Eagles. And the Birds won't have to worry about the 11-4 Saints in the first round.
The Saints have won seven of eight games. They are the defending champions who started the season 3-3 but appear to have shaken off their Super Bowl hangover, and they have a healthy Drew Brees. Even if they have to play every game on the road, the Saints are going to be dangerous.
The Packers beat the Eagles in Week 1 and would have challenged Chicago for the NFC Central title had Aaron Rodgers not missed two weeks because of a concussion. Green Bay lost to Detroit without Rodgers, but the next week, with a full week of practice for backup quarterback Matt Flynn, they almost beat New England without Rodgers. They are that good, and Rodgers makes them better.
If the playoffs started on Monday, the Eagles would have faced Green Bay and New Orleans would have played the NFC West winner, which would make the No. 5 seed way more desirable than the No. 3, even though No. 3 gets to host a game.
With some help, the Eagles can still grab the No. 2 seed away from Chicago. The Eagles will have to beat the Vikings in this delayed game, and then beat Dallas at home on Sunday afternoon, and the Packers will have to beat the Bears at Lambeau Field, which certainly isn't out of the question.
Getting a first-round bye is always the best route to take through the playoffs. It gives players a chance to rest and to heal, and coaches an extended opportunity to go into their dark little offices and scheme over dozens of cups of coffee. In 2004, the Eagles had a first-round bye and home-field advantage throughout the playoffs, and look where they went.
This Eagles team doesn't need home field throughout, not if the NFC title game is in Atlanta. Even with Matt Ryan's incredible 19-2 record in the Georgia Dome, half of the fans would be cheering for Michael Vick, who would be more than a little jacked up to get a shot at his old team on such a big stage.
But the Eagles could really use the No. 2 seed instead of the No. 3. If they don't get it, they can look back on the season and know exactly why.