By the time the fourth quarter rolled around, the Eagles fans were just having a delightful time. They were mocking the Cowboys, Terrell Owens in particular. They were high-fiving and slapping backs and laughing and, oh, it was just like the good old days. Only this day, this Sunday, December 28, was not like any day in Eagles history. To make the playoffs, the Eagles needed the stars to align just to have their playoff destiny again in their hands, and then they had to go out a beat the Dallas Cowboys, a team many felt was the most talented team in the NFL throughout this season.
Well, the stars aligned. And then the Eagles went out and walloped Dallas, stomped 'em, put on a 44-6 whipping that was, well, maybe the most enjoyable 60 minutes of football I have ever witnessed.
It truly is difficult to put into words what the day was like. Everyone watched the Raiders-Bucs game, from the very start, actually. The Raiders took a lead and they held it, held it .. and then as Lincoln Financial Field started filling up with fans, the groans become more audible and desperate as Tampa Bay took the lead, extended it to 10 points and, yeah, things looked bleak in Eaglesville.
But football is a funny game, the greatest game of all, actually. You have to play until the whistle. That is what coaches tell 80-pounds the first time they strap on shoulder pads. Play until you hear the whistle. So that is what the 4-11 Raiders did. They kept pushing and pushing against Tampa Bay and, as Houston held a lead over Chicago and the Vikings came back to beat New York, the crowds swelled around televisions at Lincoln Financial Field cheering and whooping and hollering and, finally, letting out a roar as Jeff Garcia was sacked into submission and the Raiders prevailed. And then, a minute or two later, the Texans knelt down and killed the final seconds off the clock and it was all there for the Eagles, right in front of a team that had some really awful hands holding onto good fortune this season.
Not this time. Not with an amped-up Eagles crowd on the edge of their collective seasons. Not with a team of players absolutely PO'd about losing the destiny thing last week against Washington and then reading their obituaries all week.
Not on this day, this perfect Eagles day.
The final score was 44-6, but you knew that by now. You knew that the Eagles scored 41 unanswered points against the overwhelmed Cowboys, that the defense registered 5 takeaways, 4 quarterback sacks, 2 fumble returns for touchdowns and a Terrell Owens in a pear tree (couldn't resist!). It was a marvelous performance through and through. The Eagles gave the ball to Correll Buckhalter 13 times and he produced 122 total yards and a touchdown. Quarterback Donovan McNabb was terrific in a 12-of-21, 2-touchdown game.
The offensive line, maligned during this roller-coaster of a season, shut out NFL sacks leader DeMarcus Ware and paved the way for 137 rushing yards on 36 attempts. McNabb was sacked just once, and he set up and spread the ball around to six receivers as the Eagles made one big play after another to blow open what was a tie game after one quarter.
In the second and third quarters, the Eagles embarrassed Dallas. The defense forced turnovers on five consecutive Dallas possessions and scored touchdowns on two of them -- a 73-yard fumble return by defensive end Chris Clemons (who was fantastic with two sacks, two hurries, two tackles and the fumble recovery for a touchdown) and a 96-yard return by cornerback Joselio Hanson, almost tracing Clemons' footsteps.
Both turnovers were forced by Brian Dawkins, who had a sack, two forced fumbles and more oohs and aahs and moments of thanks for being in an Eagles uniform. He was brilliant. The entire defense was superb, blanketing the Dallas pass catchers and keeping the Cowboys out of the end zone. Romo finished the day flat on his face after completing just 21 of 39 passes for 183 yards and a passer rating of 55.8.
Nobody wanted the day to end, and nobody wants this feeling to end, either. There is a terrific surge happening with the Eagles, a team left for dead a few days ago. The Eagles were awful against Washington, but they were given another life when Oakland won and when Houston won.
So here we are. It isn't going to be an easy road, so don't fool yourselves. The Eagles have lived to see another day, Sunday at 4:30 p.m., specifically, and they will play in a loud, obnoxious Metrodome against an aggressive Minnesota defense that no doubt has a home-field advantage. The Eagles need to play an "A" from here on out to have a chance. They're on the road, the team against the world, and they know what it's like to take that route.
All of the "how do the Eagles beat Minnesota" stories are for another day. For this night, and for the hours into Monday morning, it is time to savor the moment, the incredible end of a regular season that was unlike any I've experienced since the late 1980s, since the days when Buddy Ryan's Eagles sneaked into the post-season.
As head coach Andy Reid said after the trouncing of Dallas, "I'm proud of the guys, but we're not done yet. We got to the doorstep, but now we have to climb up the steps and get in."
Yeah, he's right. Reaching the playoffs, something that we all kind of took for granted in years past, is not the end of the accomplishment. The goal is to win the Super Bowl. And the Eagles, by virtue of an incredible day, of a day so special, have a shot. They have a chance. They are in the game.
How they got to this point and why it happened, well, we can talk about that after the season is over. The Eagles buckled their chinstraps and kicked the tar out of Dallas on Sunday night. They sent the Cowboys home whimpering, to an off-season of massive changes and intense criticism. That, in itself, is satisfying to someone who hates the Dallas star as much as I hate that team.
Whatever. This is about the Eagles and a day that was just so extraordinary.
"It was very special. It's special that all of those other things happened, but for us to go out there and put a defensive show on like we did," said running back Brian Westbrook, who contributed 62 yards of offense before he sat down for the fourth quarter. "Offensively, we did very well, but our defense ran the show today."
The defense led the way, yes, and the offense did its part and the special teams played well and the fans were into it and everything was just perfect. Just right.
It's on to the playoffs for Andy Reid's Eagles for the seventh time in 10 seasons. The Eagles know how to win in the postseason and, certainly, they are going to be challenged.
Wow. What a game. What a day. What a thrilling end to the regular season. It was a day to savor, for just a little longer.