MINNEAPOLIS - From 30,000 feet last night, Chip Kelly could have unfurled the Winston Churchill quote again, the one about how problems in victory are more agreeable than problems in defeat but no less difficult. Because, yes, his defense was just shredded by the Minnesota Vikings - but because Tony Romo and the Dallas Cowboys coughed up a lung while the Eagles were flying home, they have a chance to fix things without an overwhelming atmosphere of panic.
Here is the thing: The Chicago Bears have scored 406 points this season, the most in the NFC. The Cowboys have scored 393 points this season, the second-most. The Eagles don't have to beat the Bears anymore but they likely have to beat the Cowboys on the final weekend of the season if they are going to make the playoffs.
That last game just looms now, with everyone seeing a shootout. There is no other way to look at, especially after the Eagles just had a 48-spot tattooed on their résumé by the gone-ice-fishing Vikings. The reality of this will hit them in the coming hours and days. It is a reality that either will inspire them or break them.
"Playoffs start this week for us," linebacker Connor Barwin said, after the 48-30 loss. This was a little more true when he said it, before the Cowboys lost to the Packers, but it still holds. For Barwin and this defense, here is the question: Is it possible to erase 9 weeks of consistent improvement in 3 horrific hours on a Sunday afternoon?
After a brutal first month of the season, Eagles defensive coordinator Bill Davis promised that things would get better - and they did. There were still coverage issues, often in the red zone, but the thing had stabilized in a way that no one anticipated. Nine games, no more than 21 points allowed in any of them - if Nick Foles and LeSean McCoy got most of the headlines as the Eagles made their unexpected entry into the playoff race, the development of the defense was just as important.
All of which is a long way of saying that nobody saw the bus coming yesterday at Mall of America Field.
"They executed on all levels," Davis said, after Vikings quarterback Matt Cassel threw for 382 yards against the Eagles. "They were throwing the ball all over the field on us. We always talk about not giving up the big plays - and big plays, we gave up. We had penalties in crucial situations. We lost our cool at the end. Bad day all the way around. There was nothing good to say."
Most of the issues were in the secondary, though. The coverage was uniformly soft. At different points in the game, safety Patrick Chung (on merit) and cornerback Cary Williams (because Davis said he needed to calm down) were benched, and nickel cornerback Brandon Boykin suffered a head injury.
"I wish I had an answer right now - I've got to watch the tape," Davis said. "But we just weren't playing tight enough coverage. And that's attached to the rush, too. It's all attached together. It's not just the coverage giving up plays - the rush has to get there. Collectively, as a defense, we came up really short today."
Davis paused for a beat.
"I wish I had better answers," he said.
The Vikings were without the planet's top running back, Adrian Peterson, as well as his backup Toby Gerhart - but it didn't matter. Cassel was sacked three times but, overall, had time to operate and made almost no mistakes. He just carved. He left inside linebacker DeMeco Ryans to say, "I don't know who that team was today but it wasn't Eagle football."
But what is Eagle football?
Do we have any idea?
Some will argue that the defense was never that good, that it gave up too many yards, that the 9 solid weeks was a product, more than anything, of lousy opposing quarterbacks (and snow). That is easy to say. But the results were the results, and nine games is a pretty big sample, and there was no denying the numbers on the scoreboard, week after week.
Now, this. It is hard not to question everything all over again.
The Eagles have played games this season where they allowed 52 points (against the Broncos) and 48 points (against the Vikings). In the whole entire history of the National Football League, only two teams have twice given up 48 or more points in the same season and made the playoffs.
Can the Eagles be the third? Only if they find a way to shake those 3 horrific hours.