Bye! Eagles! Bye!
NEW ORLEANS - Andy Reid punted.
With his Eagles' fifth NFC championship game appearance in six years on the line, the head coach chose not to go for a first down on fourth and 15 with less than two minutes on the clock last night.
Even though, once upon a time, the Eagles won a playoff game by converting on fourth and 26.
Even though, on the previous play, Hank Baskett caught a pass that would have been good for a first down. That catch was negated by a false-start penalty on the Eagles, setting up the fourth-and-10 situation. (The first, and ONLY, false-start of the game, committed by a rookie - the Superdome "crowd noise" was a non-factor - TM)
Even though the Eagles' defense had been completely unable to stop the New Orleans Saints' offense throughout a wild divisional playoff game at the Superdome.
Reid punted and so the Saints will play in their first NFC championship game next Sunday. They continued their feel-good run under first-year head coach Sean Payton by beating the Eagles, 27-24, exactly the same score as the Saints' regular-season victory here in October.
It was a thrilling, entertaining game from start to finish, a contest played at a pitch every bit as high as the stakes. The game deserved Reid's best gamble on fourth and 15, not a white flag.
The Saints gladly took the punt and ran out the clock.
"In hindsight, I guess maybe we should have [gone for it]," Reid said, "because we didn't get the ball back. I thought we would be able to get the ball back."
"You can't put the coach in that situation, where it's fourth and 16 or whatever the yardage was," center Jamaal Jackson said. "That's an impossible position."
The Eagles only had that last chance because the Saints made their lone error of the night. They were driving toward another score and, just as important, running time off the clock, when quarterback Drew Brees' pitch went over running back Reggie Bush's head. Darren Howard, a former Saint, recovered.
This was the miracle moment. This was the chance to steal a victory. Reid banked on getting another one, and he didn't. Given the wild nature of the game, the big plays and the heroics, fourth and 15 was the best the Eagles could do.
Inside the Superdome, you could follow the action with your eyes closed. The record crowd of 70,001 rocked the building with waves of thunderous noise when the Saints were on the march. When the Eagles scored, the crowd went so silent you could almost hear live jazz from the French Quarter.
The Eagles scored on the longest run, the longest pass and the highest leap in team playoff history. During the third quarter, the Saints broke their team record for total yards in a postseason game - a record they set against the Reggie White-led Eagles in 1993.
Every time the game seemed to settle into a pattern, something happened to amaze and confound.
When it looked as if Jeff Garcia just didn't have it, he suddenly chucked a ball with all his might. It settled into the arms of wide receiver Donté Stallworth, who had gotten beyond the defense. Stallworth, traded from the Saints to the Eagles last summer, turned it into a 75-yard touchdown. He punctuated it by finding a group of fans in Stallworth's No. 18 jerseys and tossing them the football.
When it looked as if the Eagles' running game just wasn't working - they had a total of 12 yards on the ground in the first half - Brian Westbrook exploded off right tackle and kept right on going for a 62-yard touchdown. He carried the ball and Saints defensive back Josh Bullocks the final 5 yards.
It wasn't even Westbrook's most exciting run of the game. He needed about a foot to score the Eagles' second touchdown of the game. He got it by vaulting clear over his offensive line and a pair of Saints linebackers, landing 3 yards beyond the goal line.
Payton, meanwhile, deployed his array of skill players brilliantly. Even without injured veteran wide receiver Joe Horn, the Saints' offense is an embarrassment of riches.
The Eagles simply couldn't stop powerful running back Deuce McAllister. He broke long runs, running over some Eagles and dragging others. Like Westbrook, though, his most impressive run was short. McAllister scored from the 5-yard line, driving the entire pack the full distance. It may have been the slowest 5 yards ever gained.
When the Eagles did seem to stop lightning-fast Reggie Bush, he would suddenly pop out, cut to the other side of the field and disappear. Bush wiggled out of trouble for a 25-yard run in the first half. He scored the Saints' first touchdown by tearing himself loose from the Eagles' defense and sprinting around the right side.
The game was filled with big plays and great play calling.
Until the very end.
The Eagles had handled the Superdome noise superbly all game. They were not called for a single false-start penalty until the game's most important offensive play. And then it was called on guard Scott Young, who was playing only because Pro Bowl starter Shawn Andrews had injured his neck.
And the TrekMedic opines:
This was a team that was given up for dead at 5-6. With an aged back-up QB that hadn't proved his worth. And a running back left on the sidelines, twiddling his thumbs.
All-in-all, it was a hell of a ride. We can second-guess Big Red's decisons in New Orleans all we want, but then we can also say "If only we hadn't been beaten by the Giants;" "If only we hadn't been beaten by the Saints;" "If only a 63-yard field goal by a no-name kicker on a lousy Tampa Bay squad hadn't made it!"
Good teams overcome the "if onlies." Really good teams make it to the playoffs. Great teams make it to the big dance. We were 6-10 last year. With a few tweaks and more offensive command decisions given to Marty Morninwheg, we can become a great team next season.