HAVING CLINCHED a playoff berth and won the NFC East Sunday without playing, the Eagles tried to employ the same strategy in their matchup last night with the down-and-out, previously 5-9 Minnesota Vikings. The result was a 24-14 Vikings victory, probably the worst game the Birds have played this season, overall.
So much for winning the first or second seed in the NFC. So much for the bye and the illusion that the 10-5 Eagles, locked into the third seed with a meaningless game to play Sunday at home against Dallas, are a red-hot team entering the playoffs, where they will host the Packers, Giants or Buccaneers, presumably with more alacrity than they showed last night.
Eagles coach Andy Reid, seething afterward, said the snowstorm delay from Sunday night that made this the first Tuesday NFL game since Oct. 1, 1946, had nothing to do with anything.
"They played. We didn't play," Reid said.
Sitting around Center City for 2 extra days didn't seem to bother the Vikings, who bruised Michael Vick's right quadriceps on the first play of the game, a 14-yard scramble, and gave former Eagles assistant Leslie Frazier a strong boost in his quest to become more than an interim successor to Brad Childress.
Asked about the bye, Reid said: "We don't deserve it after that performance right there."
Maybe the larger issues this morning are that the Birds have now played one really good quarter (technically, half a quarter) in their last eight and that their quarterback, despite his final-minutes heroics against the Giants on Dec. 19, is turning the ball over at an alarming rate lately. He also is throwing it much less accurately than he was a month ago, because of all the hits, or because of defensive adjustments, or because he isn't attending to fundamentals as well as he was early in the season.
Reid said the problem is that Vick, sacked six times by the blitz-happy Vikings, is "getting hit too much."
"We need to protect him better, and he needs to do better himself," Reid said.
Judging from the NFC Pro Bowl starting QB's heavy postgame limp, there is very little chance we will see him play, with nothing on the line, Sunday against Dallas.
"I hurt it on the first play of the game," said Vick, who definitely slipped fewer big hits than usual last night. "I just tried to tolerate it throughout the game, and I did. I have a strong will to win, and I'll do anything to win a football game . . . It didn't affect me . . . I won't use it as an excuse. It happened. I didn't come out of the game, so I guess it wasn't that severe. You've just got to take the good with the bad."
He said whether he plays against the Cowboys "is Andy's decision."
Two Vick fumbles and an interception put rookie quarterback Joe Webb and the NFL's 30th-ranked scoring offense on more than equal footing with the inept, uninterested-looking hosts.
In fact, Webb outplayed Vick, completing 17 of 26 passes for 195 yards, no turnovers and an 87.8 passer rating. Vick, who learned before the game he was returning to the Pro Bowl for the first time since 2005, finished 25-for-43 for 263, a touchdown, a pick, six sacks and a 74.1 rating.
The Eagles were flat right out of the chute, Vick taking a sack on the second snap, then overthrowing an open DeSean Jackson on a third-and-14 bomb from his 41.
But it seemed the hosts weren't going to have to be super sharp, when Jeremy Maclin was hit trying to field a punt, and the Birds ended up with the ball at midfield, then got a third-down pass interference call that set them up with a first down on the Vikings' 26. Vick eventually hit Clay Harbor for a 3-yard touchdown, the rookie tight end's first NFL TD.
For a while, those were looking like the only points likely to be scored. Vick threw one interception and saw two others dropped, throwing with startling, Atlanta-era inaccuracy. Webb looked pretty confused. When the Eagles finally put together another drive, late in the first half, it seemed they might finally put some distance between themselves and the bedraggled visitors.
They faced second-and-2 from the Minnesota 39 with 55 seconds left. Antoine Winfield came free on a corner blitz. Vick, facing Winfield, seemed to see him, but did nothing to put the ball away, and Winfield punched it free. Vick tried to get back to the bouncing ball, but lost his footing on the sandy Linc soil. Winfield picked it up and cruised 45 yards for the touchdown that changed everything.
"It was a slot blitz, and we didn't pick it up," Vick said. "I got to do a better job of protecting the football, regardless. If we don't pick the blitz up, it's still my responsibility to push up in the pocket, two hands on the ball - drills that we do every day, and I didn't do it."
The play, Vick allowed, "was a huge momentum swing for the Minnesota Vikings."
It somehow seemed fitting when the Eagles, even after that, mounted a drive that left David Akers with a 54-yard field goal attempt with 3 seconds left, and Akers, perfect since Nov. 21, left it well short.
Halftime brought no great surge of urgency from the Birds. They gave up a 46-yard catch to Percy Harvin right away and avoided giving up a touchdown on that drive only because they won a challenge, asserting that Sidney Rice did not completely control the ball on a subsequent end-zone catch. A 30-yard Ryan Longwell field goal gave the Vikings their first lead.
Somewhere in there, starting corner Dimitri Patterson was benched in favor of Joselio Hanson.
It got worse. The Vikings' next drive, Asante Samuel took a penalty for a helmet-to-helmet hit on a Rice catch - likely to net a huge fine, given Samuel's repeat-offender status - which set Minnesota up on the Eagles' 9. Rice later left the game with a head injury. Rookie middle linebacker Jamar Chaney's neutral zone infraction halved the distance. Webb channeled his inner Vick on a 9-yard TD run, after a completion for a loss, and the 14-point favorites were trailing by 10.
There was booing at the Linc, and Santa was not involved.
The Eagles seemed down and out when Vick ended the subsequent drive by fumbling again, inside the Vikings' 30 this time, Jared Allen recovering at the Minnesota 23.
"Trying to do more than what I could at the time. Trying to press the issue instead of letting it happen, and playing smart. You've gotta be disciplined in this game," Vick said.
The Birds got the ball back and finally put a drive together that did not end in a turnover. Vick danced 10 yards on a draw for the touchdown at the end of a 12-play, 53-yard drive. It was a three-point game with 10:17 left.
And then it wasn't. The Vikings drove right back down on Sean McDermott's pliable defense, which couldn't blitz Webb effectively or cover underneath. Run defense, an issue only a handful of times all season, suddenly became one in the second half last night, Adrian Peterson (22 carries for 118 yards) sniffing a rare shot at a victory. Peterson carried for a yard to set the final score with 6:43 left.
It was the Birds' first home loss since Oct. 3, against the Redskins, the game Vick left early with a rib-cartilage injury.
"You're always going to be a work in progress . . . I promise you that game will make me a better player," Vick vowed.
Running back LeSean McCoy, held to 44 yards on 13 carries, said "it's hard to blame it on our preparation. For God's sake, we had extra time."
Vick could have used more help than he got from his defense, which allowed 5.7 yards per snap to a struggling offense.
"I felt like we were ready to play," said strong safety Quintin Mikell, whose recovery of a Peterson fumble was the only turnover the Eagles managed. "I felt like we were intense. It's just, we were out of sync. To be honest with you, I don't know why. It's frustrating. It hurts. But we've got a lot of football left, and we've got to regroup quickly."
Mikell said he agreed with Reid's statement about the Birds not deserving the bye.
"We had an opportunity. The door was open for us, and we basically closed it on ourselves," he said. "Now we just have to go back to work. We've got to take the long road, take the hard road. Hopefully, it's a wakeup call."
DeSean Jackson, targeted 12 times, caught two passes for 32 yards . . . Rookie defensive tackle Jeff Owens, in his first NFL game, ruptured his patellar tendon . . . DT Trevor Laws suffered a shoulder strain . . . The Eagles are off today and start preparing for Dallas tomorrow. *
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