Most Philadelphia Eagles' fans would have asked you what kind of crack you were smoking if going into today's games you believed they had a good chance to make the playoffs.
Two reasons would have dominated their thinking. First, the Birds would have had to beat Dallas and then hope for two other results: losses by either Minnesota or Chicago and an Oakland victory at Tampa Bay. Second, the Birds played inconsistently in their first fifteen games and terribly in their loss to the Redskins last week. Taken together, few Eagles' fans were feeling good about the Eagles' chances today. Moreover, I'm sure that some were hoping for a shellacking at the hands of Dallas, if only to force ownership's hand regarding head coach and GM Andy Reid and the quarterback, Donovan McNabb (I am not among the disbelievers, however, when it comes to McNabb, whom I believe is good enough to win a Super Bowl).
And then a funny thing happened on the way to missing the playoffs for the third time in the past four seasons. When we turned on the television mid-afternoon, my son and I learned that the Vikings were in a dogfight with the Giants (who only let starting QB Eli Manning play the first half; the Vikings prevailed on a game-ending 50-yard field goal by Ryan Longwell), the Bears were in a tight game with the Texans, and Oakland was hanging in there against the Bucs. Then, the tides turned again, and the Bucs pulled ahead of the Raiders, thanks to a great interception return by safety Sabby Piscitelli.
But, by the time the Eagles-Cowboys game started, the stars had aligned for the hometown Birds. The Texans beat the Bears, the Raiders upset the Bucs, and the stage was set for the winner to go to the playoffs. That's right, the Eagles once again could control their own fate.
Against Dallas, of all teams, the team that Philadelphia fans seem to want to beat the most. Rewind to the season's outset, and many pundits predicted that the Cowboys were one of the favorites to win the Super Bowl. The Giants? Written off. Too many (for the worse) personnel changes. The Redskins? Ah, improving. The Eagles? Well, good, but aging, and probably falling short in what at the time was regarded as the toughest division in the NFL.
So what happened? The Eagles' shattered the myth of America's team once again. They showed that Cowboys' QB Tony Romo does not belong on the NFL's version of Mount Olympus, that they could force turnovers, and in the end, in the most unlikely of scenarios, the Eagles trounced the one-time Super Bowl favorites, 44-6. And now it's onward to Minnesota against the formidable but beatable NFC North champions.
The Cowboys get to play golf, think about a disappointing season and wonder which of their employee roster will help ring in the new stadium that awaits them. Not only did they not make the playoffs, they failed spectacularly in a must-win game.
As for the Eagles, they answered some questions today. Andy Reid will be back as head coach and, in all likelihood, general manager. You don't replace someone with his track record unless the replacement is superior, and most candidates to replace him would represent a significant amount of risk. Likewise, Donovan McNabb will return as the starting quarterback for the same reasons. Kevin Kolb represents too much of a risk right now.
There are other questions. The offensive line is iffy. The tackles are old and unrestricted free agents, and their best lineman (Shawn Andrews) is coming off back surgery. Their center is average. L.J. Smith, the underacheiving tight end, won't return (he's a free agent). The wide receiver corps is improved, but undistinguished. They could use an upgrade at fullback, some more depth on the defensive line and at linebacker. Most importantly, they need to get out of the 6-10 through 10-6 zone. You can't stay there forever, and they need to take a step forward again. The big question is will they?
Many local pundits hoped that something like this wouldn't happen. They fear that owner Jeffrey Lurie and president Joe Banner will tout this season as a triumph, as something to build upon. They hope that the front office will examine thoroughly whether Reid should continue, period, and, if so, continue to be both GM and head coach. They also hope that Reid will evaluate his coaching strategy and his quarterback and determine if changes need to be made. They fear that the front office and Reid won't do any of this.
Right now, it's much better to be in the playoffs than to lament what might have been. Eagles' fans are perhaps more giddy about crushing Dallas than about the prospect of the playoffs, although the gap between the two will evaporate by tomorrow morning.
The day's results were unlikely and unexpected.
Fly, Eagles, fly.