MIAMI - What was this thing the Eagles were doing yesterday? It didn't look familiar.
"That's called having fun," defensive end Trent Cole helpfully reminded puzzled reporters. Cole had three of the Birds' nine sacks in a 26-10 demolition of the Miami Dolphins at Sun Life Stadium. The Eagles wrangled another week of technical playoff viability. "That's the defense having fun, enjoying ourselves. When we're having fun out there, we make it a party," getting everyone involved, Cole said.
After that introductory burst of good cheer, this is the part of the game story where we are required by law to note that the Eagles didn't redeem their season yesterday, that the win only counted once, blah, blah blah, as if you didn't know that.
So what did the 5-8 Birds accomplish, in holding the Dolphins to 204 net yards, beating a team that came in 4-8, a team that had roared back from an 0-7 start on the strength of a defense that hadn't given up more than 20 points in 8 weeks?
Andy Reid and Juan Castillo were able to smile a little. No one will be asking them this week about players giving up on them, or on each other. That "youth" theme Andy started trotting out last week gained a little traction, with the first career Casey Matthews sack, a Phillip Hunt first sack that caused a safety, and a key Kurt Coleman interception.
But even in winning big, there were troubling flaws. Against a better team, do you survive getting your first punt of the day blocked, leading to a 7-0 hole? Or fumbling the ball away on an needless razzle-dazzle punt-return play, up 17-7 in the second quarter? Won't your offense need to be able to get out of its own way in the second half, against most opponents? The Eagles scored 24 points in a hectic span of 9 minutes and 51 seconds in the second quarter, then could add nothing until Hunt brought down J.P. Losman in the end zone with 9:02 remaining. The Birds' offensive line might have played its worst game of the season.
Those are questions and quibbles for another day. Today, let's let Castillo and his troops celebrate a dominant effort, one in which they stuffed the Dolphins on fourth-and-1 twice, shut them down on third-and-1 to force a punt, and swarmed a run for minus-3 yards on third-and-goal from the Eagles' 2 that forced a field goal, when Miami was down 24-7 and needed a touchdown. Not what we were used to seeing from the NFL's worst red-zone defense.
"We played like men today," said defensive end Jason Babin, whose three sacks of Losman and starter Matt Moore, who left with a head injury, gave Babin 15 for the season. That's the most by any Eagle since Hugh Douglas notched 15 in 2000. "Do we have a chance for the playoffs? Maybe. But we're kind of out of it. And guys in this locker room decided, 'We're going to play, and we're going to have fun, and we're going to show you guys we love the game.' I think that really rang true the whole day."
Reid was asked by a Miami-area reporter if this was the kind of performance, and team, he expected to have all season. Reid more or less winced. No point in him going there right now.
"I'm just proud of the guys and how they played today," he said. "We're a work in progress, so that's what we're doing. We're getting better."
Defensive tackle Cullen Jenkins, asked about the stirring short-yardage stops, from a defense that memorably failed again and again to corral Marshawn Lynch in Seattle the previous game, said this: "It was just attitude, just coming off the ball. The one-on-ones, trying to win 'em."
Castillo, for once, didn't have to pledge to work harder or place more emphasis on fundamentals.
"I'm happy for our guys. You know why? Because they worked their ass off," Castillo said. "When you work your ass off and win, you get rewarded. The thing that happens is, when you don't get rewarded and you work your ass off, you start losing faith."
Castillo switched up his rotations at linebacker and defensive end. Matthews, in exile since Week 3, got a nickel role and seemed to play well. Hunt, inactive six games in a row, provided good energy, Castillo and Reid opting to deactivate both Juqua Parker and 2010 first-round draft choice Brandon Graham. Parker played in every Eagles game from 2005-09, but has missed time with injuries the last two seasons, and now is the oldest Eagle, at 33.
"We made a few changes here and there, a couple guys stepped up," Cole said, when asked what was different about the defense yesterday.
Early on, it sure looked like the Eagles had found yet another way to get the disaster ball rolling. The Dolphins sent corner Jimmy Wilson in off the right edge and Wilson blocked Chas Henry's punt, Miami getting the ball at the Birds' 15. On third-and-11, Moore found Brandon Marshall behind Nnamdi Asomugha in the end zone and the Dolphins were ahead.
But the Eagles got the ball at their 46 after a missed 55-yard field-goal attempt, and drove in for the tying touchdown. Then Coleman intercepted Moore and ran it back to the Miami 1, setting up LeSean McCoy's second touchdown run in a 1:39 span.
Then Asante Samuel forced and recovered a Davone Bess fumble after a catch, and the Eagles got a 40-yard Alex Henery field goal for a 17-7 lead.
"They might be steroid-testing me when I go home," joked Samuel, who is not known for his jarring hits.
Then a very 2011 Eagles thing happened. Defense holds, Miami punts, DeSean Jackson sees little return room and throws the ball the width of the field to little-used Curtis Marsh. Marsh, a rookie cornerback, makes the catch but takes one step before being hit and fumbling the ball away.
Game-changer. Except it wasn't, because on first down from the Eagles' 24, Moore was sacked by Babin and fumbled it back, to Mike Patterson.
"I probably got too cute on that. I thought we had something there; obviously we didn't," Reid said. "The defense stepped up there, had a turnover, and helped us out."
The Eagles then drove for the final touchdown of the game, Michael Vick finding Jackson from 34 yards. It was Jackson's first touchdown since Oct. 9 at Buffalo.
In his return from broken ribs, Vick seemed to be trying to set a record for passes bounced off the upraised hands of defensive players. Going in, if you had known Vick would finish 15-for-30 for 208 yards, four sacks, a touchdown, an interception, and a 69.9 passer rating, and McCoy would run 27 times for just 38 yards, you would have figured yet another loss was coming. But the two Dolphins quarterbacks - Moore left after slamming his head on an offensive lineman's behind while being tackled by Brian Rolle - threw for just 155 yards. The nine sacks allowed tied a Dolphins franchise record, Sun Life Stadium emptying midway through the fourth quarter except for a hardy contingent of Eagles fans.
The Eagles, a league-worst minus-13 in turnover differential coming in, actually cut that down by one, forcing three turnovers and giving away only two.
"That's how games are won in this league - the teams that have the most turnovers lose and the teams that get the turnovers usually win," said Vick, whose 12-interception, 12-touchdown season has shown little grasp of that fact, heretofore.
"Everybody knows the situation," Hunt said. "We all want to rally behind Juan, because we know he's a great guy, a great coach, and we don't want to see anything happen to him."
Three more games like yesterday, who knows? But that would be quite a streak for a team that hasn't won two in a row since October.