There are few happier places on earth than the December locker room of an NFL team that has won five straight games and appears headed toward the playoffs.
Players come in boisterously after practice, joking and yelling, punching each other on the shoulder. In one corner of the room, a husky, bearded offensive lineman dons a Santa Claus hat for his interviews. At another locker, the rangy quarterback takes questions about being on the cover of Sports Illustrated. The world is very good. Everybody smiles
"Winning makes everything better," linebacker Mychal Kendricks said last week as he surveyed the scene.
The amazing thing about the Eagles this season is not that they are 8-5 and their locker room is one big, towel-snapping comedy club at the moment. The amazing thing is that the players continued to think this could happen even as the team started 3-5 and was just a couple of more missteps from a disastrous plunge.
When their letdown game against Dallas, the game in which Nick Foles suffered a concussion, was followed by the flat loss to New York on Oct. 27, the game in which Michael Vick tried unsuccessfully to play despite a hamstring injury, there was no telling which way the Eagles season would go. Maybe it's easy to say now, but the players insist they were still believers.
"If you look at those five games we lost early, there was really only one game, Denver, where you would consider we were beaten handily," center Jason Kelce said. "The other games, we were in them for the most part. They were close games and if you take away a lot of mistakes, we could have won those games. Maybe not easily, but we could have won them. That makes a difference in how you think about it. If we were blown out for five games, that's when you start doubting yourself. But we felt we were two, three or four plays away in each game from having a very different record."
The analysis is true enough. In their first loss, 33-30 to San Diego, the Eagles committed way too many penalties, let Philip Rivers engineer a late drive to the winning field goal, and didn't manage the clock very well at the end of the game. Against Kansas City, a 10-point loss, they had five turnovers that led to 13 points and zero takeaways. Denver was Denver. Against Dallas, Foles played poorly before getting clocked, but it was still just a seven-point deficit midway through the fourth quarter when the defense allowed Tony Romo a too-easy drive to seal it.
Against the Giants, it was another game in which third-stringer Matt Barkley had to play a lot and that was a tough situation for the rookie, and not an accurate reflection, at least within the Eagles locker room, of how good the team could still be.
"The fact is it was still early and we were still learning and you could see improvement every game," cornerback Brandon Boykin said. "At some point, things were going to click. We would win some and lose some, and you knew that once we got it all together we were going to be good if we could stop shooting ourselves in the foot."
In the five straight wins that have followed that Giants loss, the Eagles have won the turnover battle every game, by a combined 12-2. They have committed more penalties than the opponent in only one of those games (Washington). And, of course, Foles put his quick-read, quick-release game into gear quite stunningly and didn't have a quarterback rating lower than 100 in the streak until Sunday's snow game against Detroit.
Some good fortune was also involved, as there is for every winning team every season. They played opponents at the right time (Green Bay without Aaron Rodgers, Arizona without Andre Ellington, Detroit without Reggie Bush) and were able to keep their own players on the field for the most part. What it came down to, however, was that the team had the character to keep working even after the frustrating 3-5 start. That's what made the streak possible.
"There's no sense giving up, because we were in games and that's one of the things that kept our confidence up," Kendricks said. "We knew we were in them and were a couple of plays from winning them. Put it in that perspective and you know you have what it takes to win."
That confidence, which is at a pretty high level right now, will help if the going gets tougher somewhere along the line in the final three regular-season games. They remember where they were, and how that turned around.
"We understood the season wasn't over just because we were 3-5. Everyone understood it's a long season and it was going to take a while for us to get acclimated to each other," cornerback Cary Williams said. "I'm confident that if we happen to stumble, God forbid, that we'll get back in it. This team doesn't quit. I don't see a letdown with this team if we do happen to falter."
After all, they've been there before.