EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. - The Eagles walked off the MetLife Stadium field on Sunday as winners for the 10th and final time this season. The harsh reality that it was their last game overshadowed the accomplishment.
The 34-26 victory over the New York Giants allowed the Eagles to finish 10-6 for the second straight season under coach Chip Kelly, and made them the best of any non-playoff team. The players could head back down the Jersey Turnpike with the sweet feelings of victory, because those are precious in the NFL.
But it does not eradicate the bitterness of an unfulfilled December. A three-game December losing streak had already doomed the Eagles. The win over the Giants was too little, too late. The season is over too soon.
"It's a bittersweet thing after this thing's done, obviously, not making the playoffs," center Jason Kelce said. "But it wasn't like we had a terrible season; 10-6 is pretty good in the NFL. But that's not the standard that we're trying to hold ourselves to here. We're trying to hold ourselves to playoff football and Super Bowl football."
It became clear one week ago that 10-6 would not be good enough. The Dallas Cowboys won the NFC East at 12-4, and the NFC's two wild-card teams won 11 games. Kelly put it bluntly: "We didn't win enough games." That was the reality realized throughout the locker room.
"Some Achilles' heels that, in the end, were not solvable," owner Jeffrey Lurie said of the 2014 season. "That's what derailed us. It wasn't the math. Because I know we could have won 11 and we wouldn't have made the playoffs. We had to be 12-4."
Lurie identified turnovers, red zone offense, and big plays allowed on defense as the biggest issues this season. There were signs Sunday of how the Eagles won 10 games and also examples of why they lost six games.
The offense totaled 426 yards and the special teams scored a touchdown, which was the team's 11th non-offensive TD this season. The Eagles set a new single-season record by scoring 474 points.
But the defense also allowed 505 yards and two passing plays of more than 40 yards. Quarterback Mark Sanchez committed a turnover, which was the 27th from the quarterback spot this season.
Sanchez finished 23 of 36 for 292 yards with two touchdowns and one interception. His top target was rookie receiver Jordan Matthews, who caught eight passes for 105 yards and a touchdown. Running back LeSean McCoy carried 17 times for 99 yards. He left the game with a knee injury, but it was not serious.
The Eagles secondary lacked struggling cornerback Bradley Fletcher, who was sidelined with a hip injury. Nolan Carroll started in Fletcher's place, and the change did not help. Eli Manning threw for 429 yards, with two Giants receivers topping 150 yards. Rookie sensation Odell Beckham Jr. finished with 12 catches for 185 yards and a touchdown.
But the Eagles secondary made one more play than the Giants' passing game when safety Nate Allen intercepted Manning's deep pass late in the fourth quarter to preserve the win.
"We knew it was a tall task going in," Kelly said. "You obviously have a group of real talented receivers, led by Beckham, but I thought coming up with the pick at the end was kind of fitting."
The teams traded scores to start the game, with the Giants targeting Carroll on a six-play scoring drive and the Eagles responding with a three-play drive that ended with Matthews' 44-yard touchdown reception.
A Sanchez interception later in the first quarter was nullified by a 41-yard pass-interference call, and Sanchez responded by finding Brent Celek for a 1-yard score three plays later to take a 14-7 lead.
The Eagles extended their 17-16 halftime lead early in the third quarter when James Casey rushed through the Giants' protection for the Eagles' fourth blocked punt of the season. Trey Burton scooped up the loose ball and returned it 27 yards for the touchdown, becoming the 10th player to score a touchdown on defense or special teams this season.
"We talk about the emphasis on special teams and it's huge in this league," Kelly said. "There is a bunch of guys there that really understand what we want to get accomplished from a special-teams standpoint. I think that's given us an advantage all year long."
The Eagles maintained that lead throughout the rest of the game. After a Giants field goal in the third quarter, Chris Polk extended the margin to 12 points with a fourth-quarter touchdown run. Beckham responded with a 63-yard TD catch, but the Giants could never get any closer. After a Cody Parkey field goal, Allen's interception sealed the victory.
When asked what was different on Sunday than the previous three games, Kelly said each week has its own story line. He cited examples from this season when the Eagles made one more play than the other team, and there were times - such as the Week 16 loss to Washington - when the opponent made one more play.
There were too many times when Kelly needed to explain a loss this season than explain a win. That's why Sunday was the final game for this team, and why the players must clean out their lockers on Monday morning. The win over the Giants made it just a bit less bitter.
"We're not obviously where we want to be," Sanchez said, "but it's much better to end it this way than on the losing end."