The 2009 season ended for Philadelphia Eagles' fans as it has every season since the good old days of Norm Van Brocklin and Chuck Bednarik: in total disappointment.
But this is a new feeling for Eagles fans. After winning 13 of 18 games against the Cowboys during the decade of the 2000s, by scores such as 49-21, 44-13, 44-6, and 41-14, the Eagles had the Cowboys' number, especially in December, the most important month of the NFL season.
However, two scores can practically define the Eagles' season: 24-0 and 34-14. For the first time since the Ray Rhodes coaching days of 1996, the Eagles' suffered an early exit from the postseason.
Given the magnitude of the losses, this was one of the most painful six days in Philadelphia Eagles history.
The Eagles won 11 games, including a six-game winning streak, and became the first No. 6 seed in NFL history to clinch a postseason berth after 14 games.
Throughout the season, there were 10 critical plays that defined the season, including a No. 1 play that will always make me think... What if?
10. McNabb Injured--Again
In 2008, McNabb played a completely injury-free season for the first time since the Eagles went to the Super Bowl in 2004, and it seemed that maybe injuries were a thing of the past for unquestioned leader of the Eagles' offense.
The Eagles dominated the reigning NFC South champion Carolina Panthers in the first game of 2009, and with a commanding 31-10 lead in the middle of the third quarter, McNabb rolled out and ran in for a three-yard touchdown.
A late hit (which went uncalled) by defensive tackle Damione Lewis broke one of McNabb's ribs. McNabb missed the next two games, and returned to the Eagles for the team's fourth game.
Fortunately, the absence of McNabb didn't seem to affect the Eagles' record, as the Eagles suffered a blowout loss to the eventual NFC-champion New Orleans Saints and won a blowout at home against the inept Kansas City Chiefs.
9. Playmaking Backup Quarterback?
Kolb played very sparingly for two seasons, and did just about nothing right. He lost a fumble on his second NFL snap back in 2007. He threw four interceptions on just 34 passes in 2008, one of which was returned an NFL-record 108 yards for a touchdown by Ed Reed.
And he fumbled in two of his first seven pass attempts at the end of the 2009 season opener. He played so poorly, in fact, that Eagles' fans were convinced that Mike McMahon had been cloned and brought back on the team.
So when McNabb suffered a rib injury in the season's first game of 2009, there was plenty of reason to panic. Kevin Kolb was forced into the starting quarterback role for two games.
Trailing 7-0 early in the first quarter against the powerful New Orleans, the Eagles decided to let Kolb throw his first deep ball, and he hit DeSean Jackson in stride for a game-tying 71-yard touchdown.
Kolb ended the game with 391 passing yards and two touchdowns. He threw 327 yards and two touchdowns in his other start, making him the first quarterback in NFL history to throw for 300 yards in his first two starts.
More importantly, Kolb showed the Eagles that his two-plus years on the bench had seemingly paid off.
If six-time Pro Bowl quarterback Donovan McNabb is not welcomed back for the 2010 season, the Eagles at least have a quarterback who has shown that he is capable of making big plays.
8. Miles Austin's game-winning touchdown
The Eagles were locked in a 13-13 defensive battle in the middle of the fourth quarter of their first game against the Cowboys.
Then Miles Austin burned Sheldon Brown for a 49-yard touchdown catch with 8:04 remaining, giving the Cowboys a 20-13 lead and an eventual 20-16 win.
The play epitomized the Eagles-Cowboys rivalry during the season, as the Cowboys dominated the Eagles in the regular season finale and the wild-card round to become the first team in the history of the rivalry to win three times in one season.
It also helped Miles Austin turn into one of the top receiving threats in the entire league, as he led the entire NFC in receiving yards in his first full season as a starter.
7. DeSean Jackson Answers Back
The Eagles were 8-4 and in the thick of the playoff race in the NFC. The Giants were 7-5 and struggling to save a season that had began with five consecutive victories.
A Sunday night battle turned into a classic NFC East shootout, highlighted by a DeSean Jackson 72-yard punt return touchdown that probably will go down as the Eagles' best play of the season.
But after poor tackling led to a Domenik Hixon 61-yard touchdown reception, the Eagles trailed for the first time, 31-30.
On the sideline, DeSean Jackson told Andy Reid to get the ball in his hands. Reid agreed, and one deep pass and a backwards walk into the end zone later, the Eagles had regained the lead, 37-31, sending the Meadowlands into a state of absolute shock.
The Eagles ended up winning 45-38, and clinched a playoff berth the following week. Jackson's 60-yard touchdown reception tied the NFL single-season record for 50-yard touchdowns (8) and cemented his value as the most explosive wide receiver in the National Football League.
6. Another Stud Receiver
The Eagles' fourth game of the season marked the return of Donovan McNabb from a rib injury suffered in the season opener. It also marked the emergence of a new stud wide receiver to complement DeSean Jackson.
The Eagles dialed Jeremy Maclin's number on their first pass of the game, and McNabb hit the 21-year-old rookie for a 51-yard touchdown catch, his first NFL touchdown.
Maclin added a 40-yard touchdown reception later in the game, and finished the game with 142 yards and two touchdowns.
He totaled 146 yards and a touchdown in the wild-card round, setting an Eagles' single-game postseason receiving record.
5. Jamaal Jackson Knee Injury
During the 2009 season, quarterback Donovan McNabb was asked to name the most valuable player on the team's offense. He selected center Jamaal Jackson.
Jackson had started 76 consecutive games until a torn ACL injury against the Denver Broncos sidelined him for the season finale, a rematch with Dallas for the division title.
The Eagles lost that game 24-0, and lost to Dallas again in the playoffs to end the season in the most disappointing fashion possible.
Donovan McNabb spent the majority of the final two games, especially the wild-card game, running for his life from the Cowboys' defensive linemen.
Without protection from his offensive line, a quarterback doesn't even have a chance to make plays. And the most important member of the Eagles' offensive line is future Pro Bowl center Jamaal Jackson.
4. Leonard Weaver's 41 Yard Touchdown
Heading into the seventh game of the season against the first-place New York Giants, the Eagles had used Leonard Weaver sparingly.
The big fullback had carried just four times in his first six games in an Eagles' uniform, but with the loss of former All-Pro running back Brian Westbrook to a concussion suffered in the previous game, the Eagles needed another playmaker on the ground.
On Leonard Weaver's first carry of the game, he scampered 41 yards for a touchdown, which was 14 more rushing yards than Eagles' fullbacks have compiled over the past four seasons.
In fact, until the emergence of Leonard Weaver as a superstar, many Eagles fans were unfamiliar with the position of "fullback."
Weaver averaged almost seven carries per game for the remainder of the season, establishing himself as arguably the best fullback in the National Football League (a position that Eagles' fans had only heard about until 2009).
His season total of 323 rushing yards almost doubled the total amount of rushing yards by Eagles' fullbacks over the last decade and for the first time in the Andy Reid era, the Eagles were using all 11 offensive players on a single play.
3. Bearly a Comeback
The Eagles were 5-4 and trying to rebound from two very painful losses, which prompted quarterback Donovan McNabb to call the Bears' game a must-win, something the five-time Pro Bowler had never done in his 11-year career.
The Eagles had won just one of their last 11 games decided by one score or fewer. And they had suffered a painful loss to the Chicago Bears in each of the last two seasons, the first of which saw Brian Griese lead the Bears on a 11-play, 97-yard drive in just 1:43, culminating in a 15-yard touchdown pass to All-Pro receiver Muhsin Muhammad with just nine seconds remaining.
So after LeSean McCoy scored on an 11-yard touchdown run to give the Eagles a 24-20 lead with 5:31 remaining, the Eagles knew the game was far from over.
When the Bears took over at their own 21-yard line trailing by four with 1:50 remaining, it appeared to be deja vu for the Eagles.
But after a fourth-down completion to Johnny Knox, Jay Cutler whipped a pass over the middle, which was batted into the air by linebacker Tracy White. Safety Sean Jones made a diving interception to secure a much-needed victory for the Eagles.
It was the second straight season in which the Eagles had been involved in a 24-20 nailbiter on the road with the Chicago Bears on Sunday Night Football.
And it propelled the Eagles to win three more one-score games before the season's end, improving Donovan McNabb's career record in one-score games to 33-30-1.
2. Failed Flight Night
Middle linebacker Stewart Bradley was named to the Sports Illustrated's All-Pro team after the 2008 season and, with the departure of future Hall of Fame safety Brian Dawkins, was poised to become the team's defensive leader in 2009.
But everything changed when Bradley suffered a torn ACL during, of all things, Eagles' Flight Night in early August. Bradley missed the entire season, and essentially the Eagles never recovered from his loss.
They started six different players at middle linebacker during the season, including 34-year-old Jeremiah Trotter, who was brought back for his third stint with the team.
None of the linebackers could defend both the run AND the pass, like Bradley, and things got ugly.
The image of Oakland Raiders' tight end Zach Miller rumbling 86 yards down the field for an easy touchdown led to one of the biggest upsets of the NFL season, and it stands as the signature play provided by the Eagles' ineffective rotation at middle linebacker.
1. Sean Jones Phantom Interception
The single most important play of the Eagles' 2009 season came in the wild-card game against the Cowboys.
Trailing 7-0 early in the second quarter, the Eagles' offense hadn't scored a point in almost six quarters. Then Michael Vick hooked up with rookie Jeremy Maclin for a phenomenal 76-yard touchdown pass, tying the game at 7.
On Dallas's first play after the kickoff, Tony Romo lobbed an errant pass over the middle intended for his new favorite target, Miles Austin. Sean Jones made a diving interception at the 34 and raced down to the 14-yard line.
Just like that, the momentum of the game had completely shifted toward the Eagles. Old Tony seemed to be back, the same Romo who had lost two playoff games for the Cowboys with turnovers in the final two minutes of play.
The Eagles were on the brink of taking a 14-7 lead, and seemed to have finally cured their disastrous play over the previous five quarters.
But Wade Phillips challenged the call... And won... And Dallas drove down the field and scored a touchdown.
And that was it. The Eagles never recovered. I truly believe that the game would have resulted in an Eagles victory if the Sean Jones interception had not been overturned.
Sometimes one play can turn around a game, or even a season. It's not always a fourth quarter Brian Westbrook punt return touchdown against the New York Giants.
It can be a Robert Meachem fumble recovery touchdown late in the second quarter. And it was one challenge away from being a Sean Jones interception, a play that could have propelled the Eagles into the divisional round against the New Orleans Saints.
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