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Snuggle up to Kelly's success

Eagles' first-year coach deserves all the credit for the team's surprising success this season.

Eagles head coach Chip Kelly. (Charlie Neibergall/AP)
Eagles head coach Chip Kelly. (Charlie Neibergall/AP)Read more

THE BEST GIFTS are always the ones you don't expect.

A comfy Snuggie, which you certainly never would buy for yourself; an overpriced pillow that provides both coolness and support; a gift card for a mani-pedi that you can upgrade to a facial, or a massage, or whatever. You know, for the ladies.

For Eagles fans, this has been a season of unexpected bounty. After 2 years without a postseason, the Birds can earn a playoff berth with a 10th win (or a tie) Sunday night at Dallas.

The team in January hired Chip Kelly, a college coach so far on the cutting edge that he sometimes goes over it.

They weathered a potential disastrous situation, which, incredibly, actually seemed to further stabilize the franchise.

They had a star quarterback supplanted by a young one whose efficiency could not be predicted, and can hardly be processed.

They saw all five linemen start every game - remarkable, in that three of them came off season-ending injuries and one is a rookie.

They discovered wondrous depth on their defensive line, and saw an old lineman become a playmaking linebacker.

And, finally, when they visit the Cowboys on Sunday night, they will be facing a fourth team significantly debilitated by an injury to a top player. Dallas quarterback Tony Romo is expected to miss the game with a herniated disk in his back.

Then again, Romo missing the game might be bad news . . . for the Eagles. Romo threw two interceptions and managed a season-worst 69.2 passer rating when the Cowboys beat the Eagles on Oct. 20. Given recent developments, the Eagles beating the Cowboys is anything but assured against Romo's replacement, Kyle Orton.

Kelly has insisted that the Eagles did not play softer once they learned reigning MVP Adrian Peterson would not play for Minnesota 2 weeks ago. You wonder about his true feelings, though. Yesterday, he said:

"I know this team's not going to fall for the banana-in-the-tailpipe trick," Kelly said, referencing the fool-me-once line from "Beverly Hills Cop."

So, yes, Kelly understands how fortunate the Eagles have been.

They also have been remarkably good. They have earned the rest of their windfall.

Kelly, worshipped at Oregon, finally acquiesced to the earnest and lucrative courtship of Eagles owner Jeffrey Lurie and general manager Howie Roseman.

Kelly then stormed into the league, ignored waves of preseason criticisms about his offense - whether it would kill his quarterbacks, whether it would wear out his linemen and defense, whether it would work at all - instituted a program based on science and analytics and turned a four-win team the division's top club.

Kelly's analyses aren't always right - his kickoff strategy against the Vikings proved disastrous, and his insistence that playing at altitude in Denver posed no physical challenge was absurd - but his single-mindedness provided a template that the team has followed.

Kelly's focus helped the team overcome its first crisis.

Just after No. 1 receiver Jeremy Maclin was lost for the season to a knee injury, a video surfaced in which his replacement, Riley Cooper, was seen using a racial epithet at a concert. Kelly addressed the matter head-on . . . but, more to the point, quarterback Michael Vick, who is black, set the tone for Cooper's forgiveness and redemption. It was the biggest play Vick made all season.

"Most important thing I've done all season?" Vick said. "Probably the most important thing I've done in my life."

It would have been interesting to see the effect of the Eagles' decision to renegotiate Vick's contract to save money (instead of cutting him). A hamstring injury cost Vick all or part of seven games.

In his absence Foles compiled a 118.8 passer rating, best in the NFL and third best in NFL history. He has thrown 25 touchdown passes and two interceptions in 12 games, which vaulted him into the MVP conversation . . . and he's getting better.

Remember: Foles was a third-round pick in 2012 who lost the starting job at the end of the that season. He also failed to win it from Vick in the preseason. No one could have predicted this degree of success for Foles.

"He deserves credit for what he's doing. Each week he just keeps improving," said Kelly, who studies each of Foles' snaps in each practice. "He does little, subtle things, and you're like, 'Yeah, he's got it.' "

No quarterback "gets it" without adequate protection. That protection has not been there every game, mainly to Vick's detriment, and Foles survived poundings against Arizona and Minneapolis, but the offensive line's resilience has been amazing.

Left tackle Jason Peters (Achilles') and right guard Todd Herremans (foot), each 31, rebounded from their injuries, as did center Jason Kelce (knee). Lane Johnson has been the healthiest and best of the five first-round tackles taken (Kyle Long plays guard), despite his lack of experience as an offensive lineman. Johnson, a former quarterback, never played offensive line until his junior season at Oklahoma in 2011.

Johnson was more comfortable at his position than veteran Trent Cole, a Pro Bowl defensive end who had to convert to linebacker in Kelly's three-lineman defense. Cole, 31, hadn't played linebacker since early in high school . . . but, with eight sacks in his last seven games, he has been a revelation.

So have linemen Cedric Thornton, Vinny Curry and Bennie Logan, the rookie whose play convinced the Eagles to trade nose tackle Isaac Sopoaga.

All of it - the crisis management, the QB play, the line's durability, the defensive standouts - all of it revolves around Kelly.

"I don't know what else to attribute it to," said Herremans.

Credit his New England pragmatism with quashing the Cooper mess. (Cooper, by the way, has a remarkable 44 catches for 796 yards and eight touchdowns, numbers that approach Maclin's typical contribution.)

Credit his synchronized quarterbacking at practices with making sure Foles was ready to play.

Credit his commitment to sports science and nutrition with keeping his linemen fresh.

Credit his ability to adjust midstream with the evolution of the defensive front.

Credit his lack of ego with his ability to learn the NFL game and to admit his mistakes, which earn him truckloads of equity with his veteran players and coaches.

Credit Kelly with all of this.

Or, credit Lurie and Roseman with hiring Kelly.

He was the best present they could get for their fans.