ARLINGTON, Texas - Reputations and eras usually change slowly in the National Football League, but the Eagles beat those odds and the hated Dallas Cowboys on Sunday night to finish off the regular-season portion of one of the most remarkable turnarounds in their, or any team's, history.
Just one year after finishing the long tenure of coach Andy Reid with four measly wins and a dispiriting vantage on the future, the Eagles clinched the NFC East division title by barely outlasting the Cowboys, 24-22, and now move forward under new coach Chip Kelly with a home playoff game and a feeling that the best might be still to come.
"They didn't flinch," Kelly said after the narrow win. "I expect this group to compete every day. It's the same as always for us. One down, one to go. One week at a time."
The Eagles open the postseason in Lincoln Financial Field against the New Orleans Saints on Saturday night. They haven't won a playoff game since 2008, but if all that happened this season is possible, continuing the current ride a little longer doesn't seem out of reach.
Kelly, a New Hampshire native who made his name as a college coach at Oregon, has been embraced as the symbol of the local renaissance, a swaggering and fearless innovator who has replaced the listlessness of last season with a belief in the locker room that the franchise is not just smarter than the next guy now, but tougher, too.
"Very simply, we're from Philadelphia, and we fight. That's it," Kelly said last week when the Eagles didn't play it safe and rest their starters ahead of the Dallas showdown. If Kelly had run down the Parkway and climbed the Art Museum steps, he could scarcely have made more of an impression on a civic sports psyche that was so recently downtrodden by the failures of its professional teams.
The Eagles, with a prolific offense and a much better defense than imagined, have more than just attitude, however. But they really needed the attitude more than ever when what was supposed to be a mismatch turned into a steel-cage match against the Cowboys. They managed to grind out the win on a night when a lot went wrong and finish the regular season with a 10-6 record. That includes four wins from a division that looks ripe for domination for some years to come.
Is this turnaround the harbinger of a dynasty on the rise, or a fortunate combination of circumstances that will be difficult to replicate season after season? That answer won't be known for a while, but the certainty is that the Eagles are back in the playoffs, football in Philadelphia is fun again, and the ride has been exhilarating regardless of the final destination.
"I told them they just need to be caught in the act of being themselves," Kelly said. "This is a special group. They just work, and they bought it, and it's an awesome feeling to work that hard and then see the payoff."
The clinching win was dramatic, even though the Cowboys were without starting quarterback Tony Romo and the oddsmakers felt the game might be one-sided. The Eagles began the night sticking to that script. They forced a fumble on the first Dallas possession; kicked a field goal; and then, after a Cowboys punt, drove the ball 88 yards to take a 10-0 lead.
At that point, however, just when things were supposed to get even easier against a Dallas team of which nothing was expected, the Cowboys got themselves back into the game behind backup quarterback Kyle Orton and trailed by just 17-10 at halftime.
Once into the second half, the game spun even faster. Eagles quarterback Nick Foles was harassed into taking sacks; fumbled the ball once; and then, in a crucial spot near the end of the third quarter, was unable to sneak his way into the end zone on a fourth-down play from the Dallas 1-yard line. The result of all that was two Dallas field goals in the quarter and an Eagles lead that had been cut to 17-16 entering the final period.
At that moment, with the entire season in doubt and their expectations crumbling around the edges, the Eagles did two things they desperately needed. They stopped the Cowboys on a fourth-down play when linebacker Connor Barwin batted down an Orton pass, and then the Eagles took off and manufactured a touchdown drive of their own midway through the fourth quarter.
Ahead by 24-16, the Eagles still bent a lot more on defense, and they almost broke. The Cowboys scored again but failed on a two-point attempt to tie the game, and by that narrow margin the Eagles skipped away from disaster and into the playoffs. Defensive back Brandon Boykin picked off an Orton pass in the final two minutes to finally seal the win.
It wasn't easy, but this wasn't supposed to be an easy season, anyway. It was supposed to be a retooling and rebuilding year in which a .500 record and signs of improvement would be considered a success.
The definition of success has changed, though, because in the space of just one year, the Eagles have, too. Starting Saturday in the playoffs, we'll find out how much.