PHILADELPHIA -- It will take a while to get over this one, as it should, and maybe now isn't a time for reflection, but what a first year for Chip Kelly.
Despite a pedestrian start that was atypical for Kelly's hair-on-fire offense, the unit rebounded for a spirited finish against the Saints that reflected a season that was mostly about the new head coach's scheme.
As Kelly and his players left the field after a devastating, 26-24 loss to New Orleans, fans at Lincoln Financial Field cheered them into the tunnel. When was the last time that happened after an Eagles playoff defeat?
"It's probably a little too soon for that," Kelly said when he was asked to reflect upon this season's dramatic turnaround. But he did look back for a second: "I don't think us winning the division or getting to the playoffs was a surprise to us. I just think everybody is disappointed we're not moving forward."
There is great promise, and Kelly brought it with him from the college game. He stood toe-to-toe against one of the NFL's best minds -- Saints coach Sean Payton -- but came up short. Kelly was the first to admit that his offense left points on the field.
The Eagles scored a touchdown after a second first-half interception, but failed to come away with any points after the Saints' first turnover. The sequence of plays will haunt Kelly and the Eagles in the offseason.
After cornerback Bradley Fletcher picked off Drew Brees in the first quarter, the Eagles moved to the Saints 15. But the offense went in reverse. Tight end Brent Celek was dropped for an 8-yard loss when New Orleans blew up a screen pass. And then Nick Foles held onto the ball too long and was sacked for an 11-yard loss.
Alex Henery was sent out to attempt a 48-yard field goal -- the maximum distance he and special teams coordinator Dave Fipp had decided upon before the game -- and the kicker hooked his attempt wide left.
"We didn't do a very good job of capitalizing off of their turnovers," Kelly said, something his offense had done most of the regular season. "We had the one with Fletch and we got down in there and then we got the first down. Screen pass went backward and we got a sack and it took us out of there."
The first half was sloppy for both offenses, two of the best in the NFL. The chilly conditions played a factor. But both defenses took away each offense's bread and butter -- the Eagles couldn't run the ball and the Saints couldn't throw it.
The Eagles offense did get in a second-half groove, but only after the Saints were spotted a 20-7 lead. The lead was trimmed to 20-17, then the Saints jumped back up by six after a field goal, but Kelly called the Birds' best possession of the game when it mattered most.
With eight minutes left -- plenty of time, and plenty of time to run LeSean McCoy -- the running back plunged ahead for five yards on first down. On second down, McCoy picked up eight yards. The offense had some room, and Foles went to the air.
After an errant throw, he found DeSean Jackson alone over the middle and the receiver picked up 10 yards. Riley Cooper was next, pulling in an 8-yarder. And then after a McCoy 3-yard rush, Foles went deep.
Jackson was singled up against cornerback Corey White. He had been shut down for almost three quarters by Keenan Lewis, but the Saints cornerback left with a head injury after a hit in the third quarter.
But White wasn't in the same class, and Foles made a mental note. He earlier hit Jackson for 40 yards on a jump ball, and here White grabbed the receiver and was called for pass interference at the 3-yard line.
After some trickery failed -- Foles ran to his right and shoveled back to McCoy for no gain -- the Eagles regained the lead. Foles rolled to his right and found tight end Zach Ertz alone for the touchdown that, after the extra point, gave them the lead with 4:54 to go.
It was a remarkable comeback considering the Linc felt as if the air had been sucked out of it after the Saints took a 20-7 lead with 3:59 left in the third quarter.
But Kelly didn't panic. He had more than 18 minutes. So on first down, Foles handed off to McCoy, and he ran around the left end, found a boulevard, and scooted for 11 yards. The key play on the drive may have occurred when Foles threw a pass to Jason Avant and the receiver was nearly decapitated by Lewis.
Avant took a brutal blow and dropped the ball, but it was Lewis who didn't get up. The cornerback had kept Jackson in check until that point, but he left with a head injury and never returned.
Two plays later, Foles went to Jackson. Flushed out of the pocket to his right, Foles found Jackson singled up against White. He chucked a jump ball and the 5-foot-10 receiver came back to the ball and outleaped the 6-1 White for a 40-yard grab.
It ignited the Eagles, and even though the offense needed four plays, McCoy plowed into the end zone on fourth-and-1 to narrow the Saints lead to 20-14. Last week against the Cowboys, Kelly went for it on fourth-and-1 and a quarterback sneak failed.
This time, he spread his offense out, handed off to McCoy, and the running back ran behind blocks by Todd Herremans, Lane Johnson, and James Casey.
A series later, after the defense forced a punt and Jackson zoomed 29 yards on the return, Kelly had Foles hand off to McCoy on first down again. He picked up only two yards, but it kept the linebackers honest, and Foles hit Cooper for eight yards and then 14 yards.
The drive stalled, though, and Henery's 31-yard field goal whittled the Saints lead to 20-17 with a little more than 11 minutes.
The Saints regained a six-point lead after they went the other way for a field goal. The Eagles scored a touchdown and volleyed back into the lead. But, in the end, special teams and the defense failed Kelly and the Eagles.
Up until that point, though, the offense failed the Eagles. It just couldn't outgun a powerful Saints offense, and a season that not many expected much from ended with disappointment.
But Eagles owner Jeffrey Lurie saw the big picture.
"There's just so much promise with Chip and this staff and this group," he said. "A young dynamic coaching staff merged with a young, dynamic group of players. ... This will only serve to motivate them even further. They know now they're good."
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