How the Eagles played on Sunday night against the Arizona Cardinals was really more important in the long run than whether they finished the game as winners or losers.
A win over the Cardinals could have greased their path to the playoffs in some ways, but the outcome couldn't get them in or keep them out. What the game could do, however, was give the Eagles further confidence that they even belong in a playoff game this season.
If they could hang with Arizona, which came in with an 11-2 record and both its offense and defense ranked among the top five in the NFL, then maybe the Eagles would be worthy of the postseason. It would still take wins over the Redskins and Giants, but at least a skimpy 8-8 division title might be more than a precursor to further embarrassment in the playoffs. Hold their own against the Cards, playing to clinch the NFC West, and the possibilities get better.
Well, so much for that. The final score didn't help the confidence factor, although there were some asterisks on the defensive side. The two starting cornerbacks - one of whom was a backup himself - were lost in the first half, and Arizona's offense was able to take advantage.
There wasn't as much to take the Eagles offense off the hook, however, and as much as a team needs to produce in all phases, the confidence of the organization always hinges on the play of the quarterback. Until Sunday night, the late-season narrative concerning the resurgence of Sam Bradford had been holding up. After this game, some of the questions are going to return.
The offense turned the ball over four times, with two of them coming on Bradford interceptions and another on a sack-induced fumble. All four turnovers were in the second half, and a game that had been only a seven-point deficit at halftime for the Eagles quickly got out of hand.
"We made some plays. It's not like they shut us down all night," Bradford said. "We just had too many self-inflicted wounds to really do anything. Playing against a really good offense and a really good team, you can't do those things."
For Bradford, the season started off shakily, then he appeared to settle in during a stretch that was interrupted, but not halted, by two missed starts. He looked sharper, although the offense hasn't been appreciably more explosive. The offense averaged 20.9 points per game in his first seven starts and, after the 40-17 loss Sunday night, has averaged 19.4 points in his five starts since.
What Bradford had done differently, however, and what he failed to do against the Cardinals was avoid turnovers. He had nine touchdown passes and 10 interceptions in the first seven games. Since his turnaround, Bradford had five touchdown passes and one interception before Sunday night. It wasn't as if he had lifted the team by himself, but he wasn't causing them to lose any more, either.
Against the Cardinals, he threw another two touchdown passes, but he also tossed two fourth-quarter interceptions, one of which was returned for a touchdown. The rest of his work mirrored the kind of performances he has turned in recently. He threw high-percentage passes accurately enough, working the underneath routes to the tight ends and backs. Twenty-two of his 28 completions went to backs, the tight ends, or the slot receiver. It isn't sexy, but, combined with a good running game, it can be effective, and it can win. The running game wasn't good enough against the Cardinals, though, even as the Eagles transitioned fully to Ryan Mathews as their lead rusher.
Bradford took punishment from the Arizona defense, two sacks and seven other quarterback hits, one of which stung him so badly on his previously injured shoulder that he left the game for one play in the first quarter. He kept getting up, however, and his highlight of the game came on a 78-yard touchdown pass to Jordan Matthews, another play in which he was laid out by an onrushing defender.
"I thought Sam played well," coach Chip Kelly said. "I thought he threw the ball well. He got hit, and he stayed in there and delivered the ball."
In all, though, it wasn't the uplifting night the Eagles hoped for, regardless of the outcome. They looked like a team outclassed by a true playoff team. Maybe that's unfair, particularly since the defense was operating at a deficit, but that's how it looked.
As for the offense, the one bad mistake - the pick-six - didn't alter the night, but it did put a hole in the nice story that has been woven around Bradford's comeback in the second half of this season.
There are two games remaining that can repair the story, at least for a short while.
The longer version of the tale still might look a lot more like the one that was told on Sunday night.