— There’s always one stealth team in the NFL. It’s the team that falls flat on its face coming out of the gate, gets its feet back under it, then goes through a stretch so spectacularly bad that you write them off and don’t even bother looking for them in the standings.
With a couple of weeks left in the season, you finally get around to ticking off the playoff teams and you get to the last wild card and there they are, still very much alive. That’s when you scratch your head and try to figure out how such a thing is possible.
Say hello to the Philadelphia Eagles, the team that refuses to die no matter how many stakes you drive through its heart.
We put them on life support way back in Week 5 after they got off to a 2-3 start in the nasty NFC East. They rallied to 5-3, and we gave them a sliver of a chance, but then they lost two and tied the lowly Bengals to fall to 5-5-1. Donovan McNabb had been benched, the team was in chaos and the coroner came in and pronounced these guys deader than the American auto industry.
We buried them, tamped down the dirt on the grave with a steamroller, paved it over with 14 inches of reinforced concrete, dropped a 40-ton block of granite on top of it and moved on to other teams, teams that still had a pulse.
So here we are at the end of Week 15 and here, too, are the Eagles. Fresh off a 30-10 win against the Browns, Philly is a half game behind Tampa Bay, Dallas and Atlanta in the race for the NFC's final wild-card slot and needing just one small favor to be in control of their own fate.
OK, maybe it’s a more like a big favor.
But considering that they’ve already pulled off a miracle by crawling out of that grave, it’s not asking that much. All they need is for the Falcons to lose this Sunday in Minnesota. If Atlanta can do that for them, the Eagles will be in control of their own fate.
If the Falcons win one, the Eagles have no hope. Atlanta’s last two games are against the Vikings and at home against the St. Louis Shams. The St. Louis game is a six-inch putt to win the Masters, so if the Falcons don’t lose to the Vikes, they aren’t going to lose.
But if Atlanta loses, then all the Eagles have to do is go down to Washington and beat the Redskins and then beat the Cowboys at the Linc on the season’s final weekend. Nobody said it was going to be easy, but the possibility could be there, if only the Falcons lose to the Vikings.
(The Bucs could falter, but with games remaining against San Diego and Oakland, that doesn't seem likely.)
What would make the story great is the central plot element of quarterback Donovan McNabb. He was benched in the middle of the team’s losing streak in favor of second-year quarterback Kevin Kolb, the man who was drafted to replace McNabb. Kolb may indeed be the quarterback of the future, but he isn’t yet the quarterback of the present.
He got hammered by the Ravens after McNabb has presided over the tie with Cincinnati that so muddled the season. That was when McNabb admitted that he had no idea there’s just one overtime period during the regular season. After all, he’s only been in the league for 10 years. How could he be expected to know things like that?
McNabb was pronounced as dead as his team. There was no way he could come back after being benched. He’d taken the team to four straight NFC Championship games and one Super Bowl. Guys with his credentials don’t get benched. And if they do, they don’t come back and turn back into a hero. That’s what the experts said.
He fooled them all, leading the Eagles to resounding victories over the Cards, Giants and now the Browns. He’s on his way to his best season at least since 2004 and maybe his best ever. He’s been banged up a lot, but he’s been healthy this year and he’s still just 32.
In a way, if McNabb and the Eagles pull this off — with a little help from the Vikings — it will be management’s worst nightmare. If he’d just had the decency to gag against the Giants, the Eagles would be out of this and McNabb would be on his way out of town. There’d be no reason to keep him. He’d had his chance, and he’d failed. It would have been time to hand the reins over to Kolb.
But if McNabb continues his great play and the Eagles sneak into the playoffs, it’s going to be mostly his fault. This isn’t an aging Brett Favre yo-yoing between retirement and un-retirement. This is one of the game’s premier quarterbacks still in the prime of his career and with no desire to retire. Sure, the Eagles could let him go, but where are they going to get someone better?
It’s a dilemma the Eagles are willing to face, because if they do it would mean they’re in the playoffs and McNabb is a hero once more.
All they have to do is win out — and hope the Falcons lose.