The Eagles' regular season came to an anti climatic end yesterday as their backups fell to the Dallas Cowboys by a score of 14-13.
This is probably the least upset you will ever see the Eagles' fanbase about losing to the Cowboys.
The Eagles backups played admirably, but ultimately, they encountered the same problem that the Eagles starters have faced when playing the Cowboys in recent seasons: An inability to cover Jason Witten.
After being stymied for most of the day, Cowboys quarterback Stephen McGee led a late game-winning touchdown drive, mostly by going to the Pro Bowl tight end.
Quarterback Kevin Kolb didn't look spectacular, but considering he was playing alongside mostly backups, that wasn't especially surprising.
His lack of ball security was more alarming, as he threw three interceptions and fumbled once, and those turnovers were the difference in the game.
Not much else to analyze, so instead, I'll take a look back at the regular season and try to determine why despite a similar record, there is much more optimism about this year's team as opposed to last year.
What is different about the 2010-2011 Eagles that makes fans think that they have a legitimate chance of winning a Super Bowl?
Part of the reason is that the NFC seems to be weaker this year.
Despite having a worse record than in 2009, the Eagles won the NFC East this year, mostly because the rest of the division took a step back. The Cowboys badly underperformed, and the Giants suffered yet another late season collapse.
Is there any team in the NFC that seems especially imposing?
The Falcons are the top seed and have been tough at home, but yet the Eagles defeated them soundly in October, despite Vick missing the game. The Bears defeated the Eagles when they played, but I didn't get the feeling that the Bears were a better team. The Saints are the defending champions, but I don't know if they'll find the same success when forced to play outdoors.
But even looking past the weaker competition, why does this team seem to have a better chance at ultimate success that last year?
In hindsight, last season was a transition year. They had already gotten rid of mainstays like Brian Dawkins and Tra Thomas. Brian Westbrook was clearly in his last season with the team, and that left Donovan McNabb as the only real holdover from the "old days."
Under McNabb, the team seemed to have settled into a pattern: They'd be good enough to make the playoffs, and depending on the matchups, maybe even win a few games. But they weren't going to be good enough to win the Super Bowl.
With Michael Vick at QB, there is a definite sense that maybe he will be able to succeed where McNabb failed.
Admittedly, one reason for this is McNabb fatigue. After seeing McNabb come up short so many times, fans just came to expect that the team would lose in the playoffs. We've never seen Vick fail (at least not with the Eagles) so there are hopes that maybe with him, things will be different.
Beyond that, there are other reasons for Vick-fueled optimism.
Unlike McNabb who was always insisting that he was a leader, Vick seems to actually be a leader.
There was a strong sense last season that many of the younger players weren't huge fans of McNabb. Based on what I've seen and heard, the entire team seems to genuinely admire Vick.
Vick also shows some emotion on the field. While this may be a bit overrated, it is still more reassuring for the fans when the QB looks like he is getting fired up. We all know that McNabb liked to stay on an even keel, but it didn't inspire much confidence when the team is losing and he's sitting on the sideline smiling, looking as if he doesn't have a care in the world.
We've also seen that no matter what has happened in the game up to that point, Vick is capable of leading a comeback. It must be trying for defenses knowing they can never relax, because the Eagles are always capable of making a huge play.
And unlike McNabb, Vick has shown a willingness to make plays with his legs if there are no other options. McNabb seemed so determined to win the game with his arm, that he ignored the fact that his running ability could be used as a weapon.
Aside from Vick, perhaps the biggest cause of optimism is because the wide receiver group of DeSean Jackson, Jeremy Maclin and Jason Avant may be the best in the team's history.
Much has been said over the years about Andy Reid's under-utilization of the running game. Part of the reason was due to the team's personnel. When you have running backs like Duce Staley and Brian Westbrook, and wide receivers like James Thrash and Todd Pinkston, wouldn't it make more sense to run the ball more?
This season, now that the team finally has the star receivers necessary to make a pass-happy attack work, that criticism has been much quieter. Of course, Reid still could stand to run the ball more, especially if he wants to reduce the number of hits that Vick receives.
Speaking of running the ball, an underrated story this season has been the switch at running back from Brian Westbrook to LeSean McCoy.
Obviously, Westbrook was a great player, and he helped carry the team to many victories over the years. But Westbrook was also injury prone, and by his last couple of seasons, fans may have gotten tired of holding their breath every time he took a hit.
In his first year as full-time starter, McCoy had an excellent season and has often looked just like a young Westbrook. In fact, he's miles ahead of where Westbrook was at the same point in his career.
Better yet, we no longer have to watch NFL Countdown every Sunday and worry which way Westbrook's questionable status was going to go.
So yes, despite many similarities to Eagles teams of recent seasons, there are some valid reasons to think that the result will be different this time around.
But will this optimism be rewarded? Will this year's team be able to do what the McNabb-led (and for that matter, countless other quarterbacks) squads were unable to do? I'll take a closer look at the team's chances when I do my playoff preview on Friday.
Originally published on my blog: Stranger in a Strange Land