“What lies behind us, and what lies before us are small matters compared to what lies within us.” – Ralph Waldo Emerson
It was the equivalent of a final exam. In a sixteen game season, had the Philadelphia Eagles learned enough to go beyond expectations, to take their play to the next level, to cross into the next grade up – a team with a playoff victory? In the 59 minutes and 58 seconds, it seemed that they had. Despite the mistakes, the missed opportunities, the erratic offense and the defense with more bend than it cared for, they were clinging to a one point lead with 2 seconds to go. That is, they were leading until New Orleans Saints Kicker, Shayne Graham, kicked the fourth field goal of the day to end the Eagles season as incomplete, and return the team to off-season remedial class of draft picks and free agent wish lists.
The outcome of the game, from a big picture perspective, was not surprising. The New Orleans Saints, with returning head coach Sean Payton, had recent Superbowl experience, were statistically excellent on both the offensive and defensive side of the ball, and created the toughest test for the Birds this season. Despite their proclivity to pass (they did so 2/3rds of the time in the regular season), the Saints have a large physical offensive and defensive line and were confident that they could stand toe to toe with the Eagles in the trenches.
The 2013 Eagles were up to the challenge, until the last seconds of the game. They took the best that the Saints could throw, or run, at them. Philadelphia held elite Saints tight end to 3 catches and 44 yards with 0 TDs. They held quarterback Drew Brees to 20 completions in 30 attempts for 250 yards and just one touchdown, while intercepting him twice.
But the Eagles team was not quite ready for the big time. They were close, but not quite close enough. The Saints, a notorious passing team, simply used reverse psychology on the Birds and came out running the ball. It was clear that the Birds, much like in the Minnesota Vikings loss just four weeks prior, had focused so much of the defense on one aspect that they simply could not adapt quickly enough to defend what their opponents were doing.
Philly did manage to make a game of it, despite having fallen behind to start the second half 20-7. Eagles quarterback Nick Foles was steady, if not overly impressive, in his first post-season action. Foles tossed touchdown passes to tight end Zach Ertz and wide receiver Riley Cooper during his 23-33, 195 yard performance. Running back LeSean McCoy added a third touchdown and 77 yards for the Birds as well.
This was the Eagles first playoff action with their new coaching staff, and despite coming up short never showed signs of quit nor panic. However, scattered amongst the veteran leadership were players in their first or second year of NFL play. The Eagles are a young team after all, and a majority of their players have not had the benefit of post-season play.
It is in adversity, in the absence of landmarks or compass points, that you can tell the fibre of a man, and a team. It was clear that the Saints had schemed a masterful game, heavy on the run and eliminating the threat of the Birds top receiver DeSean Jackson, and even limiting the impact of LeSean McCoy. But even when the Eagles were down by two touchdowns, you could see their determination. They kept battling, and came back to retake the lead twice before running out of time at the final field goal. In fact, many thought the eagles might try a “broken arrow”. That is a play where you simple concede the touchdown to the opposing team, but which allows your offense to get the ball back and run out the clock in the winning scoring drive. No such play was called, and the offense was forced to sit silently while the Saints moved the ball, the clock, and the game out of reach.
“They killed us slowly,” running back LeSean McCoy sighed. “It was a terrible feeling. There was nothing we could do but watch.”
There will be a new Eagles team fielded in 2014. Some players will seek opportunities to showcase their talents elsewhere. Some players will seek a better paycheck to compensate them for the narrowing window of physical play of this NFL. Still others will find their career path veers from the path of the team. But know this, The 2013 Eagles may have lost their first playoff game under head coach Chip Kelly. But each and every player and coach has done something that is even more impressive. They have won the hearts of the Philadelphia Eagles fans once more.
Like it or not, these Eagles have not been counted out. The answered the bell, and kept on fighting. And to a blue collar city who had lost faith in the organization, we learned to love this team again. The Saints next travel to Seattle to face a very good Seahawks team, and the Eagles simply wrap up a very good first season.
And for these Eagles? Well the work towards 2014 has already begun. Blogs, fans, sports writers and pundits, coaches and players themselves will look at film, look at this team, and debate what the Eagles need to do to clear the hurdles next season. And that will come over the upcoming months.
But for now, the NFC East Division is looking up at the Philadelphia Eagles. And those Eagles have just gotten started. Next year, the Birds will no longer be a surprise to the league. They will be playing a first place team’s schedule, which means facing Seattle and Green Bay – neither of which will be easy wins. And the team will certainly have new faces to line up alongside the familiar ones. But the challenges of this year have already been met. This team can play solid football, they have won back the support of the fans, and they do not back down from anybody. Next year’s challenges seem much less difficult in comparison.