ARLINGTON, Texas - Somebody else's eye-black streaked Chip Kelly's sweaty right cheek late last night, as he talked about how his team "didn't flinch," with AT&T Stadium roaring and the Eagles seeming to tilt toward giving away a game they had led the entire evening.
"As soon as I saw [Miles Austin] go in I tried to bite on it," Brandon Boykin said after his team-high sixth interception of the season put the Birds in the playoffs, where they will host the New Orleans Saints on Saturday night in a wild-card game. "The quarterback made kind of an errant throw, throwing the ball behind him. It allowed me to slip in and make a play...Everybody jumped on top of me" after Boykin cradled the ball and slipped to the turf, with a minute and 43 seconds remaining, Dallas out of timeouts.
Boykin preserved a 24-22 victory that seemed even closer than that, maybe 24-23.9. The Eagles are 10-6 in Kelly's first season, and are NFC East champions.
"They bought in," said Kelly, who had wondered about that, coming from the college game with a lot of new ideas on how to do things. "It's an awesome feeling when you can work as hard as they've worked, and to see it pay off."
The Eagles' offensive and defensive lines had issues, repeatedly, against an opponent that might have played its two grittiest games this season against its NFC East rivals.
"It was an interesting fourth quarter, to say the least," Kelly allowed.
Dallas lost for a familiar reason, its QB throwing an interception in the clutch, even though Tony Romo was at home after back surgery. Nick Foles, harried and pursued, did not throw an interception, again, while completing 17 of 26 for 263 yards, two touchdowns and a 124.4 passer rating. He finishes the regular season with 27 touchdown passes and two picks, which is darned good.
"I think it just shows that our team's grown, I've grown as a player," said Foles, who loomed over the postgame podium in a black "NFC East Champions" T-shirt. He said it was good to put behind him that Oct. 20 loss to the Cowboys. Fans clutching the armrests at home might have wished he'd put it a little farther behind him, a little sooner.
There were definitely first-half moments that made Eagles fans nervous, even while Foles was completing 12 of 16 passes for 197 yards, two touchdowns and a 155.5 passer rating. Orton, who hadn't started an NFL game in 2 years, didn't look a bit rusty in moving for three first downs after the opening kickoff, but Mychal Kendricks dislodged the ball from DeMarco Murray and the Birds drove for a field goal.
It was 10-0 after an 88-yard, 10-play Eagles drive that featured a Jason Avant catch for a 22-yard gain, to the Dallas 3. Foles hit McCoy for the easy TD on the next play.
So, a couple possessions later, Dallas third and 12 from its 32, Eagles defense gets off the field and maybe the rout gets going. Instead, Orton found Terrance Williams for 39 yards, over Boykin, to the Birds' 29, and three plays later, it was 10-7.
Orton gaveth and he taketh away, however. When Witten juggled a pass thrown a little behind him, Kendricks plucked the ball out of the tight end's hands at the Dallas 49, and two passes to Brent Celek later, it was 17-7, with a minute and 19 seconds left in the first half.
This seemed to set the Eagles up great, since they'd deferred on the coin toss and would get the ball to start the second half - except that Orton needed only 56 seconds to get the Cowboys within range for a 44-yard field goal that made it 17-10 at halftime.
The third quarter fanned the flames of fans' fears. The Dallas defense seemed to have done all the halftime adjusting. Foles was chased, hit, sacked, not at all helped by playcalling that seemed weighted toward slow-developing passes, virtually ignoring LeSean McCoy.
"They were running some games" to mix up the blocking, right guard Todd Herremans said. "They were moving their line back and forth up front...I think they had a good gameplan. We had to make some adjustments."
A Foles fumble at his own 20 led to the second Dallas field goal of the quarter. The Birds were clinging to a 17-16 lead when Kelly seemed to put his inaugural season into a fourth-and-less-than-1 at the Dallas goal line. The Eagles showed quarterback sneak, as Dallas called timeout, then stuck with the call afterward. Foles didn't get in. The Eagles ran four plays after gaining first-and-goal at the 6. None of them involved McCoy.
"I felt like with the ball at the half-yard line, we had to punch it in," Kelly said.
But then Dallas coach Jason Garrett did the same thing, though he wasn't taking any points off the board, fourth and 1 at the Eagles' 40, on the ensuing drive. Connor Barwin blocked the Orton pass.
"I kept thinking I was going to get one of those passes," Barwin said. "Billy [Davis, the defensive coordinator] made a great call and sent me...It was just a reaction play."
That stop ignited a 60-yard, 11-play drive that gave the Birds a 24-16 lead with 6:07 left. Kelly rediscovered McCoy, who ran the ball on four of the first five plays and seven of the first 10, before Bryce Brown powered in from the 6 for the TD. McCoy had 114 yards on 23 carries when the Eagles scored, 131 on 27 at the end of the game.
But it wasn't going to be that easy. Orton drove Dallas 80 yards in six plays, hitting Dez Bryant over the middle on fourth and 9 from the Eagles' 32, with 3:50 left. Patrick Chung, playing because Earl Wolff couldn't go with the knee injury he aggravated the previous week against Chicago, whiffed on the tackle. But Cary Williams snuffed out the two-point conversion pass.
It was a little too hectic last night to do a lot of reflecting, but the Eagles' season began on a glittering Monday night in Landover, Md., when they ran 19 of the first 20 plays, snapped the ball 53 times in the first half, before the Redskins could buckle their chinstraps. Jeffrey Lurie, in the postgame locker room, said the thing he treasured about his new coach wasn't the razzle-dazzle offense, but the fact that Kelly was "a program builder."
Of course, the Birds spent the next 3 weeks calling that judgment into question, bottoming out with a 52-20 loss at Denver Sept. 29 that was the most points scored against an Eagles team since Nov. 26, 1972.
The guy covering that game for the Daily News wrote: "How do we know this isn't just a franchise settling into long-term hopelessness, the 2012 stretch drive repackaged with a slightly smaller coach and much faster playcalling?"
We can say this morning that is not the case, that the Eagles are headed in the right direction.
Seven wins in the final eight games helped give us that assurance. Foles' NFC Player of the Month award for November helped give us that assurance. McCoy's NFL rushing title, the first by an Eagle since Steve Van Buren in 1949, helped give us that assurance. McCoy's surpassing of Wilbert Montgomery for the franchise single-season record last night - it's now 1,607 yards - helped give us that assurance.
Boykin, cradling the ball to his stomach at the end, helped give us that assurance.
"It definitely wasn't our best," Barwin said. "But some guys made some huge plays to get off the field...we definitely have to play better than that" against Drew Brees and the Saints Saturday night.
"Life's crazy," noted Foles, the other famous QB from Austin Westlake High, after Brees. "The guys did a great job coming to work every single day. There wasn't a day where we sort of sat back and went through the motions."
Last night, Lurie again beamed in the postgame locker room, as he had in Landover 31/2 months earlier.
"There's just so much to Chip," Lurie said. "He's obviously extremely bright, but what we really saw was that leadership at all times, whether we were riding high or riding low. Big obstacles, small obstacles, attention to the details - but at all times, bringing people together. That's what he does - brings coaches together, brings players together. That's what we were looking for."
Vegas Vic says the Eagles have opened as 2 1/2-point favorites over the visiting New Orleans Saints in their wild-card playoff game.
The opening over/under total is 54 1/2.