The other big setback is a little less infamous, maybe because it didn't produce as memorable a YouTube clip, or because it ended up not being nearly as big a deal as it seemed to be at the time. That would be last Dec. 21, the Eagles at the Redskins, the Birds' most recent visit to FedEx Field, where they will return tonight. The Eagles controlled their playoff destiny - win their final two games, they were in. They came in having won three in a row since their implosion in Baltimore, the day of the halftime benching of Donovan McNabb.
But the Redskins put the Eagles back into their November mode, getting a lead and then benefiting from the way Andy Reid and Marty Mornhinweg get impatient with their running game whenever they're behind, even a little bit. The 10-3 Eagles loss looked a lot like last week's defeat by the Oakland Raiders - unbalanced Birds' offense can't get in rhythm and can't score a touchdown, even though the opponent's offense is borderline inept.
The defining play came with 57 seconds left, the Eagles straining for a tying TD. Jackson got behind corner DeAngelo Hall, reached out for a perfectly thrown McNabb touchdown pass - and dropped it.
Jackson has not had many such moments in his 21 regular-season games and three playoff appearances. He prides himself on toughness and focus, but the Redskins knocked him off his game that day - literally. They targeted the slightly built, 5-10, 175-pound rookie for hits, even away from the ball; safety LaRon Landry bruised Jackson's ribs in the third quarter. Unofficially, Jackson was charged with three of the seven drops that helped shut down the Birds' offense.
"It was dangerous to be a wide receiver out there for the Eagles," Redskins coach Jim Zorn chirped afterward.
This past week, McNabb seemed impressed that Jackson remembered that game, and was using it for motivation. Remember, the Eagles miraculously made the playoffs anyway, then won twice before losing in the NFC Championship Game. Today, that loss to the 'Skins kind of blurs together with the other stumbles that made the 2008 playoff road rockier than it needed to be, like the Baltimore blowout and the tie with the Bengals.
"The type of receiver I see myself as, I critique myself about every little thing," Jackson said the other day. "For that to be a big game for us last year . . . I wasn't myself. I didn't come up like I needed to. I've erased that and got a new opportunity this year; I'm ready.
"Last year wasn't the best game for myself, so I definitely look forward to this game. They got some pretty good corners, too; it's definitely a big challenge."
Jackson, who finished the game with two catches for 14 yards, was open and didn't get the ball a few times that day; once, having eluded Shawn Springs to no avail, he threw his hands in the air, the kind of visible display of frustration quarterbacks really don't appreciate. McNabb threw to Jackson the next play, for a drop.
"Just to be patient," Jackson said this past week, when asked what he'd learned from that game. "I kind of thought I was overanxious, I was open a couple of times that game and felt like they didn't get the ball to me, but being young . . . it's just a situation where I was open, I was like, 'I didn't get the ball!' Jumping around. Then when it comes my way, I'm not ready for it. It just shows me to be patient, take a play at a time.
"If you're open, there's going to be times when Don is going to be looking another way, or just doesn't happen to get you the ball. You just have to live with that, just be patient, he's going to come back to you and get you. When it comes your way, it counts."
The 2-4 Redskins, despite their struggles in recent seasons, have been a tough opponent for the Eagles, winning three of the last four meetings. They tend to get good pass-rush pressure without blitzing, they have a dominant tight end in Chris Cooley (something the Eagles often struggle against), and Clinton Portis and the ground game can make up for Jason Campbell's deficiencies as a passer. Cooley has 27 catches for 311 yards in six games, Portis has rushed for 447 yards on 106 carries.
The 'Skins' offensive line isn't what it was last season, though, with left tackle Chris Samuel sidelined by a neck injury, possibly for the season. Though he's hard to bring down, Campbell has been sacked 14 times. Washington has scored just 79 points, an average of a little more than 13 points per game. New offensive consultant Sherm Lewis will be calling the plays this week.
There were a lot of questions posed to the Eagles this week about the Redskins looking a bit like the Raiders - a desperate team that will be fighting to save its season. But even though the Birds are 3-2, they have a second-half schedule that looks really tough, and a home game with the Giants looming in just 6 days. A loss here certainly wouldn't end the Eagles' season, but it would put them back into their 2008 mode - scratching, clawing and stumbling, instead of establishing themselves as a contender.
"The thing is, I think we're just as desperate," right tackle Winston Justice said. "We need to win, too."
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