Just like that, the season is over. The beauty of the playoffs is when you win and live to play another week. The pain of the playoffs is when you lose and it all comes to a screeching halt. No more football. It was fun while it lasted, but now the misery sets in. Another season with no Super Bowl. Another season of unfulfilled expectations.
That isn't to say 2008 was a bad year. Far from it. There was a lot to like this year. The team showed great resiliency in bouncing back from the Ravens debacle and then the tough loss to Washington in Week 16. The Eagles won several big games and gave us some memorable performances. It felt great to get back to the playoffs and see the team win some games.
As for Sunday, everyone will search for a face to put on the loss. Andy Reid is at fault for not running more. Donovan McNabb is at fault for struggling in the first half. Greg Lewis dropped a key pass. David Akers missed a field goal and extra point, and had a kickoff go out of bounds. Quintin Demps fell down on the long touchdown to Larry Fitzgerald. Demps also had a dumb penalty on defense. And on and on and on.
There isn't one person responsible for this loss. Trying to pin everything on one facet of the game is a waste of time. There are two key factors in my mind. First, the Eagles didn't control the line of scrimmage the way that I expected. Arizona ran the ball effectively. I didn't see that coming from a mile away. That shocked the heck out of me. They gave Kurt Warner enough time to throw the ball. We did get some pressure, but not enough. McNabb had plenty of time to throw on some plays, but was under siege on others. The Cardinals also kept the Eagles' running game from getting into a good rhythm. I won't say Arizona won the battle up front, but they got a draw. I thought for sure the Eagles would win that part of the game.
The other factor was individual mistakes. We made them throughout the game. Correll Buckhalter had a false start penalty. So did Jason Avant. Hank Baskett dropped a pass. Tra Thomas missed an easy blitz in pass protection. Brian Westbrook was beat by a blitzer on one play. Dan Klecko was called for holding when trying to stop a blitzer. McNabb made some very poor throws in the first half. Brian Dawkins missed a couple of tackles. Sheldon Brown missed a tackle. Akers and Demps had really key mistakes.
These weren't all forced errors. It was just sloppy play. You hate to lose a game with those kinds of mistakes. Getting out-played is one thing. Shooting yourself in the foot is incredibly frustrating. You don't go into the offseason seeing obvious weaknesses. You just have your mistakes to correct. The worst part is that these aren't mistakes we've made all year.
Brown is one of the best tackling cornerbacks in the NFL. Yet, he misses an easy tackle on Edgerrin James. Dawkins is a tremendous hitter and tackler. McNabb throws a pass at Baskett's feet. If the ball is up near his waist, Baskett is off to the races instead of rolling around on the ground trying to make a tough catch. Akers missed an extra point. I have no idea when Akers last missed an extra point. He simply doesn't do that.
When the Eagles' best players make simple mistakes it just eats at you. We don't need to replace Brown or Dawkins or McNabb or Akers. We need them to not make mistakes in the biggest game of the year. I'm sure those guys are dying for a chance at redemption. That won't come around until next January, if at all.
So how did the Cardinals make our defense look so bad? They came in with an interesting plan. They decided to really stick with the run. In the Thanksgiving game, the Cardinals had 10 carries for 25 yards. Their offense was one-dimensional and our defense was able to attack them all game long. The Cardinals did not want that to happen again.
What made them so good on Sunday is that they ran effectively and threw the ball well. That is the best I've seen Edgerrin James run all year. He broke tackles and ran with purpose. Getting him off to a good start early in the game softened up our pass defense. That set up the trick play where Warner hit Fitzgerald for the 62-yard touchdown.
Late in the game, the Eagles were anxious to shutdown Fitzgerald and pressure Warner. The Cards responded by running the ball. That late touchdown drive was more on the ground than in the air. The touchdown throw was a short dump off to Tim Hightower, who then bulled his way in for the go-ahead score.
They kept our defense off-balance by mixing run and pass. Their running backs had 32 touches. The Cardinals threw to Fitzgerald and fed the running backs the ball. Steve Breaston and Anquan Boldin only combined for five catches. Think about this stat. Arizona had 29 runs and 28 passes. I just didn't expect that. They had an outstanding game plan and it was brilliantly executed. Warner was terrific.