EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. - The Eagles finally made that crucial, final-minutes play yesterday. They made it at least a couple of weeks too late to save their season, and the two guys responsible - Trent Cole with the pressure on Eli Manning, Nate Allen with the pick and 40-yard return of Manning's floater, as the clock ticked down inside 3 minutes left - might have made it too late to save their Eagles careers.
But they did make it, and there was music in the MetLife Stadium visitors' locker room, and the pain from the Eagles having missed the playoffs at 10-6, following their 34-26, season-ending victory over Manning's New York Giants, seemed a little less wrenching, at least for a few hours. The owner, Jeffrey Lurie, talked of needing just a few pieces to get to the Super Bowl. The defensive coordinator, Bill Davis, vowed that the hapless secondary would get fixed in the offseason. The head coach, Chip Kelly, talked about what a great, hard-working bunch of guys his players are.
It all sounded warm and good and reassuring, but early this morning at NovaCare, the process of packing up and clearing out lockers was to begin, all the same. The season is just as over as it would have been had the Eagles lost yesterday. For that matter, given the way the 12-4 Cowboys finished, the season would be just as over had the Eagles won the week before at Washington, as well. Turned out, all they did at FedEx Field was deny themselves the honor of becoming the third 11-5 team in NFL history to miss the playoffs. And their most significant achievement yesterday might have been locking themselves into drafting 20th in the first round, the worst draft position a team that misses the playoffs can get.
There wasn't a lot of tearful agonizing afterward, because the playoff chase didn't come down to yesterday, but also because most players and coaches understood: Yesterday was a microcosm. Yesterday was good enough to beat a 6-10 Giants team, barely. Not good enough to beat Seattle, or Green Bay, or probably Dallas, in the NFC. This was not a team that got a few bad breaks and missed the playoffs. This was a team that wasn't good enough to seriously contend.
It wasn't good enough the day the season started, when the Eagles had to erase a 17-point deficit to the woeful Jacksonville Jaguars, and it wasn't good enough the day the season ended, when Odell Beckham Jr., the Giants' rookie superstar, caught a dozen passes for 185 yards and a touchdown, and when backup quarterback Mark Sanchez threw one horrendous interception and was saved from throwing another by a really dubious pass-interference penalty (which ultimately allowed Sanchez to throw a 1-yard TD pass).
Bradley Fletcher didn't play with a hip injury suffered in practice last week, and replacement corner Nolan Carroll made a few plays, but overall, honestly, was the pass coverage any better? Malcolm Jenkins and Cary Williams dropped interceptions. The only caveat there was that for one of the very few games this season, the pass rush wasn't effective, and the cover guys were given a very difficult task.
"The only thing [better] that really happened was that we stopped some of those touchdowns - we turned 'em into field goals," Davis said, after New York went 1-for-3 in the red zone in what might have been Tom Coughlin's final game. "The deep ball still got us today. Way too many passing yards. So, we've got to look at everything. We have to get it fixed. And we will. We'll get it fixed."
Davis said he will look at his scheme: "Maybe I have to match more corners [on receivers] - we will look at absolutely everything, and we will get it right."
Davis said he felt his defense overall grew, "but you've got to grow in the right areas . . . We've got to get those deep balls stopped. That's the whole focus and passion of the offseason."
Afterward, Jenkins was asked if he rued missed opportunities that derailed the run to the postseason.
"At this point, all of that is behind us," he said. "We're happy to get this win. We enjoy all the memories and different things we went through as a team. I think everybody is kind of over [the missed opportunities]. We had a team with enough talent to get there, but we didn't win the games we needed to win to get there. That's just the cold, hard facts about it. It doesn't take anything away from this win . . . Now it's just on to next season."
Jenkins added that everyone knows the team won't be the same next year. Certainly, the expectation is that Fletcher and Allen will move on in free agency. Starting corner Williams has a year left on his deal but also could be sent packing, depending on how much talent management thinks it can bring in. A healthy Nick Foles is likely to replace Sanchez, not that Foles' season before he broke his collarbone Nov. 2 in Houston raised any championship expectations.
"I love this group. They came to work every single day. Everything we asked them to do, they did," Kelly said. "Obviously, we weren't as healthy as we were a year ago . . . It's a group that's a lot of fun to coach. They're very receptive to everything. They've bought into what we're trying to do. They compete and they really care about the guys they're playing with."
Kelly avoided talking about the big picture, and almost certainly will do so again this morning, at what might be his final media availability before March.
"We have the whole offseason to do that," said Kelly, whose 10-6 mark in his initial 2013 season garnered an NFC East title and a playoff berth, that team winning seven of its last eight. "I don't have a great soundbite for you right now."
Lurie said the Eagles "have nothing but ourselves to blame" for the season being over.
"So many good things during that 12-game stretch [which brought the team into December at 9-3], and yet, in the end, some Achilles' heels in the end that were not solvable," Lurie said.
"It was the three obvious things throughout the season. Turnovers, No. 1. You can't be a Super Bowl team if you lead the league in turnovers [the Eagles finished with 36]. Red-zone offense, from the beginning , especially harkening back to close early losses [at San Francisco and Arizona]. [The Eagles ranked 24th before going 2-for-4 yesterday.] We had a chance to have the best record in the NFL at that point, that would have given us a cushion . . . and thirdly, giving up the big play on defense [66 pass plays of 20 yards or more given up going into yesterday, the most in the NFL]. Great, great front seven, outstanding improvement on D all over except giving up the big ball. You can't do it.
"Gut-wrenching," Lurie concluded. "This is a great, great group of guys. I can't remember in all my time any better motivated and better group of players . . . I think we're pretty close. I think we know exactly what we've got to upgrade."
Lurie said the roster contains "a lot of up-and-coming stars in this league. It's all in front of us. [But] I don't want to sound overly enthusiastic, because we've got to fix those three things."
Sanchez, who almost certainly will be moving on after throwing 11 interceptions in 8 3/4 games, said: "I think those last couple of plays when we were taking a knee, guys just looked around, and you've got to take in that moment and realize that it's never going to be exactly the same anymore, ever again. And every year is like that. You know there's just a turnstile door in every building, and you know, guys are in and out . . . It was so great to get a win. I've been on the other end, where you lose that last game and everybody's, you know, pointing fingers and getting upset and all that, and that's no fun. That's not the way we wanted to go out, and I'm glad we accomplished what we could today."
Allen, the Eagles' 2010 second-round selection, had the ball from his 10th career interception, his career-high fourth this season, tucked into his locker afterward. He said he hadn't thought about whether it would be his last such souvenir.
"Not at all," he said. "We'll see what happens this offseason. I'd love to be back."
Overall in 2014, he said, "I did some things good, some not so good."
He was not alone there.