So ended the Eagles' unlikely bid for a Super Bowl in Chip Kelly's first season as head coach, and only with the grace of time and distance will the team's players and fans come to appreciate how far the Eagles had progressed. None of that progress matters in the immediate aftermath of such a loss. No one thinks about it. But it was there nonetheless.
The Eagles have, in Kelly, a worthy head coach. They have, in Nick Foles, a young and promising starting quarterback. And though the franchise's 53 years without an NFL championship makes it difficult to reconcile at the moment, the Eagles have time, and they will learn from what happened here Saturday.
Entering the game, the conventional wisdom had been that the Eagles ought to be the more relaxed team, freed by the meager expectations with which they had begun training camp in July. They had won just four games last year, and they remained among the 10 youngest teams in the NFL this year, and they had a new head coach and a new coaching staff and had to change starting quarterbacks in the middle of the season, and they'd gone ahead and won 10 games and the NFC East anyway, so what the heck? Why not play with abandon, with uncluttered minds? What did they have to lose?
After all, it was the Saints who had never won a road playoff game in their history. It was the Saints who this season were a below-average team outside of their home stadium, the Superdome, going 8-0 there and 3-5 outside it. It was the Saints, presumably, who were facing pressure.
Instead, the Eagles were the ones with the yips. Their first sustained drive of the game ended without points when Foles dropped back, looked for an open receiver, counted to 10, looked again, hummed the bridge of "I Want to Hold Your Hand," looked one more time, and took a sack that pushed the offense out of field-goal range. Early in the third quarter, Foles was more decisive on a third-down pass, finding wide receiver Riley Cooper on a crossing route. There was nothing but green in front of Cooper. The nearest New Orleans defender might as well have been sitting in a café on Tchoupitoulas Street. Cooper dropped the pass.
Those mistakes and the Saints' ability to neutralize the Eagles' two most talented skill-position players on offense - running back LeSean McCoy and receiver DeSean Jackson - allowed New Orleans to forge a 20-7 lead late in the third quarter. The Eagles had intercepted Saints quarterback Drew Brees twice in the first half, and the cold had appeared to affect a fair number of Brees' passes, causing the football to flutter and dip as it left his hand, as if he were throwing snowflakes, and the older, wiser Saints had withstood it.
Then came the important part for the Eagles, not just on Saturday but for their future: They did not roll over. They came back. They scored on each of their next three possessions, taking a 24-23 lead when Foles found rookie tight end Zach Ertz for a 3-yard touchdown pass with 4 minutes, 54 seconds left in regulation. The rally was a microcosm of their season - one that had seen them lose five of their first eight games before winning seven of their last eight and charging to their first division title since 2010.
"There are times when you are 3-5 and you can start to question the plan," Kelly had said before the game, "and these guys didn't question the plan. I think when we made mistakes, we all made mistakes, but we owned our mistakes. And I think when you own up to your mistakes, then you can correct them. But if you never make them and you constantly make excuses, then you're never going to fix it. I think these guys owned up to it and did that."
They did all of that again on Saturday. It just wasn't enough. After Ertz's touchdown, a long kickoff return by New Orleans' Darren Sproles and a personal-foul penalty on the Eagles' Cary Williams handed the Saints marvelous field position.
They drove far enough so that Graham's field-goal attempt was a mere formality, and when the ball glided through the uprights, hundreds of seats at the Linc were already empty. The Eagles had crafted a marvelous season, given where they were a year ago, a genuinely pleasant surprise. But now the place was solemn and silent, and the feeling was familiar to everyone there and gone.