PHILADELPHIA --You couldn't have scripted a more fitting end.
With time literally running out on the Philadelphia Eagles, Michael Vick fired a short pass to the left side. The ball hit DeSean Jackson in the hands and kept going right on through, settling on the turf beyond as the clock ticked down to all zeroes and the score became final.
Bears 30, Eagles 24 in a "Monday Night Football" game the Eagles couldn't afford to lose. The way it ended was stone-cold perfect.
We'll never know what might have happened if Jackson had caught the ball. We'll never know if he could have put a move on the defender and found his way to the end zone for the miracle score and victory. We'll never know because he didn't, and that right there looks like it could turn out to be the story of the 2011 Philadelphia Eagles.
We'll never know. Because they didn't.
This is no longer about the new schemes, the new personnel or the job the coaches are doing. This thing with the Eagles has moved beyond all of that esoteric stuff and right down into the most basic stuff of all. This is about the teetering pile of evidence that the Eagles don't have it when it counts -- that they're simply not tough enough.
"Obviously, tonight was a big game for us, and we wanted to take advantage of the opportunity to get back to .500," Vick said. "You can't let opportunities like this slip away."
You can't, but that's exactly what these Eagles do. They are 3-5 now, in third place in their division, three games and a tiebreaker behind the Giants and two games behind the NFC's final wild-card spot. And the Bears and Falcons, the two teams currently tied for that final wild-card spot, have something in common. Yep, they both beat the Eagles.
The Eagles have held fourth-quarter leads in each of their five losses. That's mind-boggling. A fourth-quarter lead is, by definition, a chance to win. Control of the game. And five times now, the Eagles have let that slip away. One was to the AFC's Bills up in Buffalo, but the other four are all to NFC teams the Eagles will have to catch if they want to put on a furious second-half run and make the playoffs.
A tough team, with tough players, finds a way to win at least one of those games -- to make the big stop that holds that lead, or mount the big drive that takes it back once it's gone. But the Eagles don't do that, and for that reason they don't look like a team that belongs in the playoffs.
You can sit here and talk all you want about how they have more talent than those teams. More depth, more speed, more athleticism. And you may even be right. But each of those teams has shown that it has more guts than the Eagles have, and it's not even really all that close.
Look at what the New York Giants did Sunday, coming back in the final minute and a half after Tom Brady did everything he could to rip the hearts out of their chests. Look at what Jay Cutler did to the Eagles in this game -- improvising, escaping, making every single play and throw he needed to make to keep a drive alive and win the game.
You don't see the Eagles doing that. The Eagles don't put together game-winning fourth-quarter drives. They give them up. To Eli Manning. To Matt Ryan. To Alex Smith. To Jay Cutler. The Eagles have been out-finished in every conceivable way by a variety of finishers. And they are at a loss to explain why the fourth quarter never seems to go their way.
"I don't know," Jackson said. "We're out there working hard in practice every day on everything we need to do. But things don't always go the way you practice it."
Precisely. They don't go that way for Manning, either, but he's managed to overcome all that's gone wrong for him and the Giants in getting to 6-2. Things sure weren't going the way they go in practice for Cutler on Monday night, but he found a way to win the game anyway.
The Eagles? Well, unless absolutely everything goes right for them, the way it did last week against Dallas or three weeks ago in Washington, they don't look as though they know how to overcome it. No one makes the big play. Everyone seems to find a way to make the costly mistakes. Their good players come up small in big spots, and that brings up a key word that appears three times in this next quote:
"It was a tough football game," Eagles coach Andy Reid said. "In these type of games, we have to be tougher than a tough team like the Bears."
But over and over again this season, they have not been.
We have seen the Eagles at their brilliant, efficient best. But we have not seen them get down in the dirt with another team and come out on top. We have not seen, from these Eagles, anything resembling toughness. That's the thing they need to find if they're going to dig themselves out of this extremely deep hole. The question is whether it's there to be found. And right now it's kind of like that last pass of the game that went through Jackson's hands. We don't know. Because they haven't.