The only sure thing for Andy Reid was that he could not win.
Every right move in December – every correct choice since losing Terrell Owens – ran contrary to what the Philadelphia Eagles had become during the previous three months. No matter what Reid did, a season that started as an exclamation point was inevitably curling into a question mark.
First Reid lost Owens to an ankle injury suffered Dec. 19 versus Dallas. Then, by virtue of locking up the No. 1 playoff seed in the NFC, Reid also lost the best reason to risk playing his starters in the last two regular season games.
Paired together, he was faced with one more, inevitable, defeat: public perception.
The same critics who decried all of the league's early-season injuries now questioned whether Reid was making the right choice by taking the least risky path he knew. In effect, Reid was only taking what his team had earned – a chance to rest late in the season, thanks to being so dominant so early.
"Part of it is you're glad you're in that position," Reid said of finishing the regular season with two meaningless games. "The other part of it is you want to win every game you possibly can, but be smart with it at the same time. Do I want to do it again? Not necessarily."
Of course, he might not mind doing it again if Philadelphia had won its final two games instead of suffering blowout losses to St. Louis (20-7) and Cincinnati (38-10). And Reid might not have minded doing it if there had been time to acclimate the Eagles offense to life without Owens – something that really didn't occur, since quarterback Donovan McNabb only played one series in the season's final two games.
So what Reid has is a team that has lost two straight and some of its ability to intimidate, an offense in flux and a roster that hasn't played a meaningful game in nearly six weeks.
Not that anyone is worrying, mind you.
"You were going to have that break in there anyway," cornerback Sheldon Brown said of Reid's decision to rest his starters rather than push for wins late in the season. "So what does it matter if it's one week or two weeks, what's the big difference?
"Either way he does it he's going to be wrong [to critics]. If you get a guy out there and he gets hurt, then he's crazy for playing the guy. If you don't play the guy [people complain]. So he's tried it other ways. Now he's trying it by going into the playoffs with everyone healthy."
Healthy, but sputtering – though this issue of momentum is tricky.
NFL teams mostly deny worrying about momentum when they don't have it. And it is oversold. The New York Jets lost three of their last four games this season, had the wind completely sucked from their sails, then went into San Diego and gutted out an overtime win last weekend. The Indianapolis Colts pulled their starters and lost their last game of the season by 19 points to Denver, then turned around and beat the snot out of the Broncos the next week.
Even Super Bowl teams have their late-season difficulties. Consider:
- The 1999 St. Louis Rams lost their last game of the regular season and won the Super Bowl.
- The Denver Broncos won back-to-back Super Bowls after the 1997 and 1998 seasons despite losing two of their last three regular season games both years.
- After the 1995 season, Dallas and Pittsburgh advanced to the Super Bowl despite the Steelers ending their season with a loss and the Cowboys (who won it all) going 2-2 in their last four games.
- San Francisco lost its regular season finale in 1994 but still won the Super Bowl, beating a San Diego team that had finished the regular season going 2-2 in its final four games.
Of course, none of these teams lost arguably their most dynamic player, who also happens to be a team leader, in the season's final month. And the fact that the Eagles' first-team offense struggled mightily in its limited time without Owens doesn't help.
"You will have your critics, the outside people saying what we can't do," said Eagles cornerback Rod Hood. "We believe in each other here with this 53-man roster. We know what we have here. Terrell Owens is out and that's a big loss but we're bigger than that."
Indeed, Philadelphia is still a team that has advanced to three straight NFC title games. They still have all of the core elements on offense that made them a stout Super Bowl contender last season. And the Eagles are still the team that improved their defense in the offseason.
They may not be the same Eagles team that started the year 11-1, but they aren't the 2-2 team that capped the year by folding their cards and protecting their chips, either. In essence, we won't know exactly what they are until Sunday.
But here's a hunch: We will see a slightly better version of last season's team that lost to Carolina in the NFC championship game.
"I've got some tremendous leaders in that locker room and guys that will be very focused in on what is at hand," Reid said.
"I try not to worry about things I can't control."
Like a month of no-win situations.