On the Eagles' second offensive play Sunday night, Nick Foles tossed a screen pass to LeSean McCoy and a heartbeat later felt all the fear and caution that his coach disregarded come crashing into his chest.
Julius Peppers, the Chicago Bears' 6-foot-7, 287-pound defensive end, somehow ended up unblocked, and he charged past running back Chris Polk and ran through Foles as if the Eagles quarterback were the finish-line tape in a 100-meter dash. The hit was oh-so routine for the average NFL game - the sort of sequence that gave credence to the notion that Kelly should have sat his starters Sunday.
The Dallas Cowboys already had beaten the Washington Redskins earlier in the day, erasing any possibility that the Eagles might clinch the NFC East title with a victory. So aside from a better seed in the postseason tournament, there didn't seem much for the Eagles to gain by going all out against the Bears. And there was Foles, laid out for a moment by a clean and brutal blow, a testament to the dangerous game that Kelly was willing to play.
But Foles bounced up, uninjured and able to orchestrate a stunning, 54-11 rout of a Bears team that had a chance to win its division. And though the victory didn't assure the Eagles of anything other than a winning record this season, it served a strong purpose nonetheless. For Kelly, the obvious risk of having Foles, McCoy, and the rest of the Eagles' regulars on the field would never outweigh the reward of sending a message to their next opponent.
Yes, the Eagles have wiped away the memory of that alarming loss last week in Minnesota, and regenerating some momentum and self-confidence in his own players would have been an obvious motivation for Kelly to treat Sunday's game with the utmost importance. But whether he intended it to be or not, this performance had to be a powerful play on the Cowboys' fragile collective psyche, too.
Dallas (8-7) needed a late touchdown pass by Tony Romo on fourth-and-goal just to edge the hapless Redskins, 24-23, and remain a game behind the Eagles (9-6) in the standings. Because they would hold the head-to-head tiebreaker, the Cowboys will win the NFC East if they beat the Eagles next week at AT&T Stadium.
But having home-field advantage in a win-or-go-home game may not be enough to counteract their history of shrinking when a game's outcome matters most. They've lost six of their last seven elimination games, and they'd lost back-to-back games in spectacular fashion - a blowout by the Bears and a 23-point comeback by the Green Bay Packers - before the three-win Redskins took them to the brink Sunday.
Now, instead of relaxing under the presumption that Kelly would make the safe and easy call to rest his starters, the Cowboys spent their Sunday night watching the Eagles play their most dominant and complete game of the season, never giving the Bears a chance to breathe. Chicago went three-and-out on its first two possessions, and the Eagles scored a touchdown on each of their first three, and Kelly could have pulled his first-team offense and defense once the second quarter began. He didn't. He played them into the fourth quarter, letting his dogs chew on the Bears' bones in front of a prime-time, national-TV audience.
"It's very simple," Kelly said. "We're from Philadelphia, and we fight. If there's a game on, we're playing. End of story."
Kelly had joined the Eagles carrying a reputation as a coach who considered conventional wisdom to be nothing more than a hindrance to creativity and clear thinking. At times this season, his unorthodox approach had hindered the Eagles - those pooch kickoffs against the Vikings, for instance. But make no mistake: This was his greatest gamble yet. Had Foles or McCoy or Connor Barwin been carted off the field Sunday, Kelly and Kelly alone would have had to answer for the loss of an important player in a game that didn't matter much.
Then Peppers thundered across the line of scrimmage and crunched Foles into the turf, and Kelly could have cost himself a quarterback, a season, and the trust of an entire city in that single moment. But Foles got up, and by the time Michael Vick replaced him in the fourth quarter, the remaining fans at Lincoln Financial Field were chanting, "WE WANT DALLAS," and the truth of Sunday had become clear: This game meant something to Chip Kelly. Hell, it meant everything.