It's all about Dallas now

Posted: December 24, 2013

The Eagles woke up Sunday morning excited by the possibility a division title would be on the line in Lincoln Financial Field before the day was done.

And their wishes were granted. Unfortunately, it was the NFC North.

That's what happened as Dallas came back to win late against the Redskins in an early-afternoon game, and both of Chicago's rivals managed to lose at home a little bit later.

Suddenly the night game took on new meaning for the Eagles, or new meaninglessness, depending on one's point of view. They had momentum to play for, not a small thing coming off the previous week's loss to Minnesota, and they had the possibility of better playoff seeding at stake. What they didn't have at stake, however, was a ticket to those playoffs.

That will have to be earned Sunday against the Cowboys, a scenario that would have been accepted without hesitation in September but now represents a slightly nervous proposition for a franchise suddenly carrying the weight of unexpected expectations.

So while the Eagles and Bears were trying to entertain a national television audience - and the Bears were doing a pretty lousy job of it - part of the football staff was back at the NovaCare Complex breaking down the Dallas film. That's what matters now, and all that matters.

It was great that the Eagles gargled away the taste of lutefisk that lingered in their mouths after the loss in Minneapolis, and great that they locked up the third seed in the NFC playoffs (yeah, yeah, if they make them), and great that not only a win against Dallas will get them into the postseason, but a tie will, too.

From that standpoint, everything that happened Sunday night was good, which is a lot more than the Chicago Bears can say, but despite the 54-11 loss, the Bears are in essentially the same position as the Eagles going into the final game.

Which team would you rather be? Is it better to be the Eagles, coming off a confidence-building game but needing to play on the road against the Cowboys; or to be the Bears, coming off Sunday night's stinker but getting to play the deciding game against the Packers in Soldier Field?

Contrary to what it looked like on Sunday night, every coach would still say it's a lot better to be the Bears. Doesn't mean it will turn out that way. It means only that the task of surviving an elimination game on the road is always daunting.

The Cowboys are a badly flawed team, with a bad defense and a quarterback who can go scattershot at any moment. The Eagles have their warts, too, of course. None of this is news. The NFC East is up for grabs on the final weekend of the season because no team in the division was good enough to put it away earlier.

The surprise, however, is that the Eagles are still one of the teams in play. Coming off a 4-12 season, with a new coach, new systems on both sides of the ball, and what was considered a defensive unit that was several quarts low on talent, getting this far wasn't anticipated.

If Chip Kelly had simply gotten the team to .500 with a few good wins and a playoff shot that didn't disappear until December, this season would have been considered a major success. That is through the lens of September, however.

Now we will find out if Kelly, along with implementing his philosophy and techniques, has instilled a sense of belonging in big games at the end of the season. A year ago, Andy Reid's final team didn't belong in any game at the end, big or small.

In that regard, what Kelly did Sunday night was an object lesson. It was a risky one, but Kelly got away with it. By playing the starters, he sent the message that he's not scared and he's not going to coach scared. The idea is that the players will pick up on that mind-set and adopt it for themselves.

They might lose against the Cowboys on Sunday night. It has happened already this season. Kelly can't control all the variables, but the job is easier if the Eagles believe they are up to it. That is the lesson he saved for last, and the final exam is in six days.


bford@phillynews.com

@bobfordsports


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