WHAT JUNK. What a blown opportunity.

And what a sobering revelation.

To play a game like the Eagles played last night against the going-nowhere/Joe Webb-quarterbacked Minnesota Vikings was to disparage everything they had accomplished so far in winning the NFC East. It was the kind of game that Andy Reid-coached teams have not tended to play over the years. It was, like many things this season, new ground.

That the 24-14 loss killed their chances of getting a bye in the first round of the playoffs is obvious. That Michael Vick continues to take a physical beating, and has gone through another stretch of subpar play as a result of that beating, is also plain. Those will be the main topics of conversation as the Eagles begin to ponder their postseason fate.

But the defense is the real issue.

No one would say this out loud, to be sure. There is a chance that none of them even thought it. But the task seemed obvious. The Eagles had 2 weeks to prove to us, and maybe to themselves, that theirs can be a championship defense. Two weeks.

Before last night's trip to the tightrope - now a weekly occurrence for the Eagles, whatever day is game day - that was the subtext of Eagles-Vikings at Lincoln Financial Field. It was buried in snow and conversation about the postponement of the game but, beneath everything that had been piled so high and deep, there was this defense and there were the questions that have surrounded it all season, and there was Joe Webb quarterbacking last night and Stephen McGee likely quarterbacking on Sunday for Dallas.

Webb and McGee are lower-echelon quarterbacks. They are the kinds of players who should have been able to give this defense an opportunity to establish something on the eve of the post-season, to build a foundation. They had Jamar Chaney playing well at middle linebacker in place of the injured Stewart Bradley, and they had the just-signed Derrick Burgess dressed for the first time in an attempt to inject some life into the four-man pass rush.

They had options. They had a chance to improve upon a record of allowing more than 24 points per game. And, well, that's gone - along with the first-round bye. Now, the Eagles definitely will be playing on the weekend of Jan. 8-9, hosting either the Packers, Giants or Bucs.

"It's definitely big - getting the bye week, you know, you only have to win two games to get to the Super Bowl and you get to rest," said cornerback Asante Samuel, who got another of those helmet-to-helmet penalties last night and should be hearing from the NFL fine police. "But that's not the case now, so we just have to grind it out."

Now, we don't even know the identity of the right cornerback, as Dmitri Patterson was benched for much of the second half in favor of Joselio Hanson - after Patterson took two penalties on the Vikings' opening drive of the third quarter.

"I just told him to shake it off and you're going to live to fight another day," Hanson said. It is what every one of them needs to tell each other.

This defense's key moment of truth-telling came when there was still a chance to salvage something and give the team a chance to recover from three atrocious quarters.

With 8:23 left in the fourth quarter, with the Vikings holding a 17-14 lead, here was the situation: Vikings ball, third-and-11 on the Eagles' 47-yard line. This was one of those moments that you underline in your notebook. This is one of the places where you wondered, if the Eagles really hoped to make some kind of noise in January, didn't their defense have to get a stop.

Webb called signals. The Eagles moved frantically on their side of the ball, then called timeout in an obvious attempt to get settled. Coming out of the timeout, with Webb in the shotgun, the Eagles' strategy became clear: a corner blitz from Webb's right side, with Hanson bearing down on the young, unpolished quarterback.

But he didn't get there. Instead, Webb completed a 19-yard pass over the middle to Percy Harvin, with Chaney not quite there in coverage.

And we all continue to wonder, as we have all season.

"Obviously, that play hurt," safety Quintin Mikell said. "If we get them off the field, there's a good chance we can get the ball back to our offense and make something happen there. [But] they get the first down and that really killed us."

And why was a linebacker covering a wide receiver?

"He shouldn't have been covering that long," Mikell said. "We had a blitz on, and you can't have a linebacker on a receiver for that long. You have to get better pressure."

It has been their problem all season. Anyway, on the next play, Vikings running back Adrian Peterson broke a run for 27 yards. On the next play, the Eagles' defense was penalized for having 12 men on the field. On the next play, the Vikings scored the touchdown that made it 24-14 on a 1-yard run by Peterson.

Underlined in the notebook, then.

Failure, underlined.

And now, the Eagles find themselves in the oddest position. Logic suggests they should rest everybody they can rest on Sunday. But how can they go into the playoffs with this being the last picture of real football from their starters?

"We want to play," Mikell said. "We're going to play. Any time you go out and have a showing like that, you don't want to go into the postseason after something like this. We're definitely going to be out there looking forward to bouncing back."

Because, yes, it was that bad. As defensive end Juqua Parker said, in words that should echo for a while, "We just went out there and stunk the game up."

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