GLENDALE, Ariz. --They went through this before, in 2001, when they lost the NFC Championship Game to Kurt Warner and the St. Louis Rams. This time, Warner led Arizona's potent offense past the Eagles, 32-25, and he stymied a defense that had been nearly impenetrable the last two months of the season. In the end, after the lockers had been all cleared out and the players and coaches piled on the team buses, the Eagles limped away from The University of Phoenix Stadium knowing it needs to play a whole lot better to win big games like this.
Where do you begin after a game like this? Surely, the defense would love to have another shot at Arizona, which went on touchdown drives of 80 yards, 73 yards and, in the fourth quarter after the Eagles had scored 19 consecutive points to lead, 25-24, 72 yards in 14 plays. The Eagles had no answer for wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald, who caught 9 passes for 152 yards and 3 touchdowns, one a 62-yard bomb after Arizona perfectly executed some trickery on a throwback to Warner, who then passed deep for Fitzgerald against the slipping Quintin Demps and, look, I know you saw it.
The defense played extremely poorly in the first half and then extremely well in the second half, right up until Warner completed all five of his passes on the game-winning drive. Three of those throws went to Fitzgerald for gains of 15 yards, 18 yards and 6 yards. Arizona converted two third downs and one fourth down on the drive. Arizona ran the ball 9 times, just enough to keep the defense off balance. And the defense, which attacked the line of scrimmage relentlessly in the second half, continued to miss tackles, including a pair on a left-side screen pass to running back Tim Hightower, who made the catch and ran 8 yards for a touchdown to put Arizona ahead, 30-25. A Warner pass to tight end Ben Patrick gave the Cardinals another two points and a touchdown and extra point lead.
Or you could point to the offense, which scored field goals that did not match Arizona's touchdowns in the first half. There were too many dropped passes, too many bungled throws to open receivers, too many penalties and too much pressure off the edges from Arizona's blitz game. Donovan McNabb came out a little out of whack, honestly. He missed some targets, threw wildly and still had the team in the lead in the fourth quarter. The running game didn't have much of a chance as the Cardinals raced out to a 24-6 halftime lead.
Special teams? A big deal. David Akers hooked a 47-yard field goal, missed an extra point and kicked off out of bounds, a play that, fortunately, did not cost the Eagles any points.
Penalties? Sure, too many. The Eagles committed 7 for a loss of 64 yards, including a bizarre late hit on Warner that Quintin Demps delivered and that, ultimately, cost the Eagles a field goal as Neil Rackers blasted a 49-yarder just before halftime. Nobody from the coaching staff jumped on Demps after the hit, so you wonder if the Eagles were simply desperate to try to shake Warner up.
Whatever, it didn't work. Warner was 21 of 28 for 279 yards and 4 touchdowns, with a passer rating of 145.7. He was great. McNabb, after his slow start, threw for 375 yards and 3 touchdowns. One touchdown made the difference.
The biggest question of all is this: Why don't the Eagles play their best games in high-pressure moments like this? Why was Sunday so difficult against a team the Eagles had handled on Thanksgiving? We all knew it would be difficult, but had the Eagles played their best game, it would have been, could have been, should have been ...
The what ifs and shoulda, couldas are for losers, though. Arizona won, fair and square. Arizona played a better game, took a lead, lost it and then had the leadership in Warner and the energy from some talented young players to grab the lead back.
All I know is that the loss is incredibly disappointing. Team Facial Hair rode an amazing amount of emotion and team chemistry into this game. The impact of the loss hasn't fully hit me as I am on the bus, heading for the charter flight back to Philadelphia. All of that energy and the sense of purpose and the great things that the Eagles did down the stretch -- they should not be forgotten. The Eagles need to build off of that end-of-season run, take an aggressive and detailed approach to the off-season and get better.
The Eagles must be realistic here. Why aren't they playing in the Super Bowl?
As has happened in past NFC Championship Games, the Eagles didn't bring an "A" game. A defense that rarely missed a tackle since November missed a bunch on Sunday. The offense took too long to get going. The special teams cost the team points on the scoreboard. These are the areas that need to be addressed in the off-season. Not just the offense. Not just the defense. Everything.
The Eagles are close, they really are. They have some tough decisions to make in the months ahead. There are several key veterans who are scheduled to become unrestricted free agents -- among them safety Brian Dawkins, tackles Jon Runyan and Tra Thomas, tight end L. J. Smith, running back Correll Buckhalter, cornerback Joselio Hanson -- and some of them aren't coming back. The team has two first-round draft picks and some obvious needs -- more firepower on offense, better play up front, perhaps another pass rusher on defense.
This team also has some good, young players who need to step up and play more. Tight end Brent Celek had a career game with 10 catches and 2 touchdowns on Sunday. DeSean Jackson capped a fine rookie season with a spectacular 62-yard touchdown catch. Victor Abiamiri, Stewart Bradley and a slew of young players helped bolster the defense into one of the NFL's best.
All of it, though, wasn't enough. The Eagles fell short for the fourth time in five trips to the NFC Championship Game. Why? How?
Back in 2001, the Eagles left St. Louis and McNabb watched Warner and the Rams celebrate their NFC title. McNabb wanted to see what it was like, because he expected to be in that situation some day himself. It happened, but not until the 2004 season. Two more times between 2001 and 2004 the Eagles reached this game, only to fall short. Both times, they failed to play a Championship-caliber game.
McNabb didn't stick around to watch this time. He knows the routine all too well. As the team's quarterback and one of its key leaders, McNabb understands the process of what is next.
"I'm proud of the guys and proud of the team," he said. "We fell short. We're going to be back. I know that. We are going to come back strong next season and we'll see what happens then."
So as the loss sinks in and hurts even more, the Eagles have to do what is right to take the next step in 2009. They are 0-0 now, along with 30 other teams in the league. It is back to the drawing board and through the heartache and the tears, the Eagles must take large steps forward in this off-season.