Dan Klecko recalls sitting in the training room at Lincoln Financial Field watching the TV. Normally prior to a game Klecko was full of nervous energy, stalking around the locker room, going through his various pregame rituals. But this day - December 28, 2008 - was different.
"I remember sitting on the table with my pads on," Klecko says. "Other guys were going out to warm up, but I couldn't take my eyes off the TV. I couldn't believe what was happening."
What was happening was nothing short of a football miracle. The Eagles, who appeared hopelessly out of the NFC playoff race just one month earlier, were suddenly alive. They had won three of their last four games to improve their record to 8-6-1 and they went into the final week of the regular season with a chance to sneak into the playoffs.
It was a ridiculous longshot when the day started. For the Eagles to grab a Wild Card spot, three things had to happen: Oakland, a 13-point underdog, had to upset Tampa Bay on the road; Houston, a six-point underdog, had to knock off Chicago and the Eagles had to defeat the Dallas Cowboys at the Linc. The Buccaneers, the Bears and the Cowboys all started the day ahead of the Eagles at 9-6, so all three had to fall.
"What are the odds, right?" says Klecko, the former defensive lineman who played fullback that season for the Eagles.
It seemed like such a fantasy that even a loyalist such as Merrill Reese didn't believe it. The night before the game, the Eagles' radio play-by-play man went to dinner with Dallas broadcaster Brad Sham. Reese recalls telling Sham, "It's not going to happen." Sham's reply proved to be prophetic. He said, "This Cowboys team finds ways to self-destruct."
Klecko had been in the league for five seasons, playing for New England and Indianapolis. He had been to the playoffs each of those five seasons and three times he was part of a Super Bowl champion. He joined the Eagles in 2008 and as the team stumbled through the middle part of the schedule he felt his run of success was over.
"I told my wife, 'Wow, this stinks. We're not going to the playoffs,'" Klecko says. "It was really a letdown. We had that bad loss in Baltimore (36-7) and it looked like we were done. But then we got hot and just took off."
So there was Klecko on the final Sunday of the regular season watching the drama unfold on TV. The Bucs-Raiders and the Bears-Texans games both started at 1 p.m. The Eagles and Cowboys weren't scheduled to kick off until 4:15 p.m. which allowed them to keep tabs on the other games. The first domino fell in Houston where the Texans defeated the Bears, 31-24. Then Oakland stunned the Buccaneers by the exact same score - does this seem like fate or what? - and now the Eagles and Cowboys would play for that last Wild Card spot.
"There was no way we were going to lose at that point," Klecko says. "Lose to the Cowboys? After all that? No way."
"I remember the feeling in the stadium was electric," says safety Brian Dawkins. "I mean, it's always super loud when we play the Cowboys, but it was even louder that day. The fans had watched the other games while they were in the parking lot tailgating so they were on fire. No one needed to give a pep talk that day. When we took the field, it was on."
Few people knew it, but Dawkins was suffering from an ear infection. It wasn't on the injury report and head coach Andy Reid didn't discuss it with the media, but Dawkins was in constant pain. He spent the week seeking out quiet rooms where he would sit for hours. The infection was so severe that it affected his equilibrium. But there was never any doubt that he would play.
"I was going to make myself play, no matter what," Dawkins says.
Dawkins also knew there was a chance this would be his final game as an Eagle at Lincoln Financial Field. His contract was coming to an end and there was no guarantee he would be back for the 2009 season. As it turned out, he signed a free agent deal with Denver in the offseason. But knowing everything that was at stake - a playoff berth, the Cowboys, a final bow perhaps for the Philadelphia fans - Dawkins was determined to put his stamp on the game.
The score was tied 3-3 after the first quarter, but the Eagles exploded for 24 points in the second quarter to blow the game open. Donovan McNabb completed a 59-yard pass to Correll Buckhalter to set up the first touchdown (a 1-yard sneak by McNabb) and then the defense took over. Cornerback Sheldon Brown intercepted Tony Romo to set up a McNabb to Brent Celek touchdown and on the ensuing kickoff, Quintin Demps forced a fumble that the Eagles recovered and turned into a David Akers field goal.
"It was like a snowball," Klecko says. "Once we got it rolling, there was no stopping it. You could see the Cowboys, the look in their eyes like, 'This thing is over.'"
"I remember at halftime we sprinted to the locker room and the Cowboys walked off with the heads down," Dawkins says. "They sensed what was going on."
In the third quarter, Dawkins sacked Romo and forced a fumble that Chris Clemons returned 73 yards for a touchdown. A few minutes later, Dawkins hit running back Marion Barber and jarred the ball loose. Joselio Hanson scooped it up and raced 96 yards for another touchdown. The Eagles won the game 44-6 in what proved to be the least suspenseful part of the day.
"It was probably the most fun game I ever played in," Klecko says.
It wasn't quite as much fun for Dawkins, who heard only muffled cheers due to the ear infection.
"It felt like the game was moving in slow motion," Dawkins says. "I was seeing all these big plays happen, watching Chris and Joselio running down the field and it was like one of those NFL Films shows where the action is in slow motion. The only thing missing was the music. It felt like there was a pin sticking in my eardrum, but the way things played out helped ease the pain."
The Eagles rode the momentum of that victory into the postseason where they defeated Minnesota, 26-14, in the Wild Card round then upset the defending Super Bowl champion New York Giants, 23-11, in the Divisional Round. The ride finally ended with a 32-25 loss to Arizona in the conference title game.
"It was a disappointing finish," Klecko says, "but I'll never forget how we got there."
An award-winning writer and producer, Ray Didinger was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1995. He has also won six Emmy Awards for his work as a writer and producer at NFL Films. The five-time Pennsylvania Sportswriter of the Year is a writer and analyst for Comcast SportsNet. Didinger will provide Eagles fans a unique historical perspective on the team throughout the year for PhiladelphiaEagles.com. You can read all of his Eagles History columns here. He is also the author of The New Eagles Encyclopedia.