Anyone who says that at mid-season — when the Eagles were staggering around at 3-5 — they knew the December 29th game in Dallas would be a winner-take-all scrap for the NFC East title is a big fat liar. Back then, the Birds had just managed 10 total points in two ugly losses to Dallas and New York. They appeared rudderless. The idea of a title game in False Face Jones’s North Dallas palace was laughable.
But something happened over the ensuing two months. The Eagles’ offense blossomed under Nick Foles, and the D grew up, too — last week’s matador display against Minnesota notwithstanding. Now, the team stands on the precipice of completing a remarkable turnaround after last season’s desultory 4-12 curtain-closer to the Big Red era. All it will take is a win in Dallas next Sunday.
The beautiful part of this matchup is that all the pressure will be on the Cowboys.
Jason Garrett could well be coaching for his job, despite False Face’s previous promise that his spot was safe. And Tony Romo, who somehow avoided a choke yesterday against the Washington NFL Franchise, will once again confront a career-defining December situation with another opportunity to gack it up.
It’s possible to be giddy at the thought of what will happen in Dallas if the Eagles come to town and take the title. There will be 10-gallon Stetsons filled with tears, and calls for any and every star-helmeted head. In most cases, the Schadenfreude that comes when Dallas dreams are dashed is delicious. The idea that the Eagles could cause that despair is almost too fabulous to consider.
On the other hand, the Eagles have virtually no pressure at all. There will certainly be significant disappointment among fans should the Birds lose the game, but given the relatively low expectations before the season and the disappointment at the halfway point, the near-miss will be an indicator of promise and bright futures, rather than an institutional problem that requires an overhaul. That’s Dallas’ problem.
This is not an ode to moral victories. The Eagles need to win this game to make the season a success. Nothing is guaranteed in 2014 and beyond, so failing to capitalize on this opportunity will douse some of the holiday spirit that prevails in these parts.
It’s just that reaching this point is a big deal, too. Instituting a new culture and revamping the offensive and defensive schemes are not easy tasks to undertake, much less accomplish. I was one of those who wondered whether a college coach who had never spent a down on an NFL staff could win in a league that has devoured so many of his campus predecessors. Though Chip Kelly technically has won nothing yet, other than six of his last seven, he has proven that he can handle the job. Even if the Eagles don’t beat Dallas Sunday, Kelly can look at 2013 as successful because of what has been put in place for the coming seasons.
That’s nice, but it’s also talk for February and March. Right now, it’s time to focus on Dallas, and particularly the Cowboys’ defense, which is missing six starters and has had some historically bad performances this season. When Dallas whipped the Birds, 17-3, back on October 20th, it did so with Foles having his only bad game of the year, and with few fireworks generated by Romo and his offensive mates. The Eagles team that travels to Texas on Sunday is much different and certainly anticipating big things against the generous Cowboy D.
This is a chance to finish the season’s second half 7-1, grab the third seed in the NFC playoffs, potentially avoid a trip to Seattle’s temple of gloom until the NFC title game (a guy can dream, can’t he?) and put the ugly memories of 2012 so far into the past that Eagles fans might actually be able to hear someone say “Time’s yours” without becoming nauseous. A lot is still out there, and the Eagles should go after it with vigor.
But should things go badly in Dallas, and Romo actually engineers a victory in late December, with big things on the line, Eagles fans should keep some perspective. We’re not too keen on nice tries in these parts; nor should we be. But there’s no denying that the second half of the season has filled fans with hope and provided plenty of fun and excitement. But with the playoffs so close, it’s hard to make that enough. So, the Eagles need to win Sunday to give fans the double pleasure of winning the division and keeping Dallas from the playoffs. Try to imagine how you felt in late October about that possibility and how much fun the next week will be.
Just don’t try to tell anybody you knew it would happen this way.
• It should be no surprise that Phillies GM Ruben Amaro’s default setting during this winter of discontent is defiance. If you thought he would admit that the avalanche of awful contracts he bestowed upon players in a bid to satisfy ownership’s love of nostalgia was a horrible mistake, you haven’t been paying attention. Amaro is under siege, and he’s going to fire away until his last bullet is spent or the last 38-year-old is signed.
• Things didn’t look so good for the Sixers heading to Milwaukee after Friday’s exciting win over the Nets. But awful defense prevailed, and they dropped a key decision to the Bucks that kept them among the three worst teams in the league. It’s going to be a tough spot to maintain, but with a big road trip coming up and performances like Saturday’s, fans should feel hopeful.
• Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year to all. Let’s hope that when we meet again in 2014, peace prevails on earth, and the Eagles are preparing for a playoff game.