THE FIRST indication that something was a bit askew came when I was approaching the airport exit on I-95 north.

Admittedly, I'd left my house a little later than I wanted to for the Eagles-Cowboys game so I anticipated running into a nasty line of stop-and-go traffic leading up to the bridges into the city.

I zipped past Philadelphia International Airport like I was piloting a 747. I encountered no delays going over the Platt Bridge, and from what I could see it would have been just as easy had I stayed on I-95 and gone over the Girard Point Bridge.

Once I got on Pattison Avenue, there was only a fraction of the normal foot traffic crossing the street and heading to Lincoln Financial Field.

And when I pulled into the parking lot at the Wells Fargo Center a little more than an hour before kickoff, the spaces available made it seem more like a Sixers game than the regular-season finale for the playoff-bound Eagles.

Maybe it was just me, but the aromas wafting off the tailgate grills didn't smell as good as usual.

There were no ear-popping sounds of competing hi-fi speakers blasting music from rock to hip-hop.

I didn't encounter one overly inebriated yahoo slurring "Dallas $*%ks!"

I did not see one entrepreneur selling a T-shirt with the kid from "Calvin and Hobbs" taking a whiz on the Cowboys' star.

Once inside the Linc, one noticed that most of the seats were eventually occupied - reaffirming the ridiculously loyal affection Eagles fans have for their team. Still, except for a few moments, the normal energy in the building was noticeably absent.

This was Dallas week in Philadelphia, but it really wasn't.

I've been writing sports in this city since 1994 and this was the least amount of juice I've ever seen for a visit from the hated Cowboys.

The conclusion I reached is that Eagles fans aren't stupid. They knew what the deal was coming in. This game was rendered moot the instant the final second ticked off in the Eagles' 24-14 loss to Minnesota last Tuesday.

The Birds were locked into the No. 3 seed in the NFC playoffs. Nothing they did yesterday would have any effect on this weekend's wild-card game.

For the record, the Birds will play the Green Bay Packers on Sunday (4:30) at the Linc.

Not long before the start, yesterday's game was further diminished when the roster confirmed that the Eagles had deactivated several regulars, including quarterback Michael Vick, receiver DeSean Jackson, running back LeSean McCoy, cornerback Asante Samuel, defensive end Trent Cole and offensive tackle Winston Justice.

It was prudent to sit those guys because some of them, especially Vick, needed the day off to get as healthy as possible for the playoffs.

Still, if the Eagles still had an opportunity to win the No. 2 seed and the accompanying bye, you can be sure all of those guys would have suited up and started.

Fans also would have cared.

On some level, I thought a game against Dallas might mitigate some of the lack of enthusiasm simply because it was the Cowboys. Even though the Cowboys were completing the most disappointing season of any team in the NFL, Eagles fans never miss an opportunity to kick dirt on them when they are down.

Most would fight to get in line. But not yesterday, which had the feel of a final preseason game.

Maybe the fact that the Cowboys came into the season as a favorite to reach the Super Bowl in their home stadium and instead finished with one of the worst records in the league tamed some of the typical Philly bloodlust.

Maybe the fans were just saving it for the playoffs.

For their part, the Eagles certainly didn't do much to generate any passion from fans who spent much of the game sitting in the rain. Their sloppy play was as effective as a snooze button. By the time the Cowboys had rallied for a 14-13 victory in the closing minute, the Linc was only about two-thirds full. Those who remained didn't even care enough to muster a good boo.

A season finale without atmosphere was exactly what the NFL was trying to eliminate by scheduling all Week 17 games between division rivals. The thought was that either high stakes or natural animosity would motivate teams to go all out.

It didn't exactly work out that way. Seven of the 16 games were decided by at least 17 points.

The only team with nothing at stake that beat a team with even a little bit of hope of making the playoffs was the Houston Texans, who beat the severely depleted Jacksonville Jaguars, 34-17.

I'm not sure what it was like at any other stadium, but at Lincoln Financial Field it felt like nobody cared about the Eagles against the Cowboys, from start to finish.

You can't fabricate meaning out of meaningless.

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