On Wild-Card Weekend the End of Two Eras

published January 11, 2010

Two eras ended this weekend, by almost identical scores.

The Reid-McNabb years in Philadelphia are almost certainly over, blasted into oblivion under Jerry Jones’s megaboard for the second straight week.  This time it was a 34-14 pasting that was no closer than the previous week’s 24-0 loss to the Cowboys.

Belichick and Brady will surely be together for years to come, but their lingering championship aura is gone, victim of a 24-0 first-quarter blitz that led to the Ravens’ 33-14 upset of New England.

Andy Reid and Donovan McNabb arrived in Philadelphia in 1999, joining a team that had won five postseason games in the previous 38 years.  McNabb became the starter ten games into his rookie season; he fit nimbly into Randall Cunningham’s shoes as the strong running and throwing QB that Eagles fans love to blame.  They’ve eagerly picked at his every flaw, booing his selection in the ’99 draft, gleefully sharing Terrell Owens’s account of his exhaustion in the Super Bowl, beseeching Andy Reid to put in his backup, whether it was A.J. Feeley, Mike McMahon, Jeff Garcia, or now Kevin Kolb.

The irascible Iggles Nation decided that McNabb couldn’t win the big one, a curious idea given the team’s history and his playoff record.  Even with this year’s loss to Dallas, McNabb is 9-7 as a starter in the postseason; his teams had won at least one game in every previous playoff appearance.  I doubt that greatness is so carefully calibrated that it differentiates between those who can win one or two playoff games but not the third.

If the City of Boo-rotherly Love really needs a scapegoat, it might better look to the coach.  His unvarying scheme, with a pass-only offense and blitz-laden defense, is ideal for overwhelming so-so teams and losing to really good ones that can find the weaknesses.  It succeeds when McNabb can make plays, and fails when he’s unable to bail it out, just as the defense looked a lot more effective when it had Brian Dawkins and Lito Sheppard in the secondary.

McNabb has one year to go on his contract, and the Eagles will probably try to get what they can for him this offseason and turn the offense over to Kevin Kolb.  If so, their fans will soon look back on the McNabb era as the good old days; for the Eagles’ faithless, the best days always were or may be, but never are.

In New England, the hallmark of the Belichick era has been ongoing reinvention, with Tom Brady providing the illusion of constancy.  Their brilliant 16-0 season in 2007 has masked the fact that it’s now been five seasons since the Patriots won the Super Bowl.  Many analysts looking at the Baltimore-New England matchup declared that it would remind everyone of the Patriots’ championship pedigree.  Instead, it reminded us that all good things come to an end.

The Pats entered the game without star wideout Wes Welker, but rookie Julian Edelman continued his passable imitation.  Their greater problem was the absence of a running game or a defense, something that dogged them all season and lay behind Belichick’s fourth-and-two gamble against Indianapolis.

After Ray Rice shredded the New England defense for an 83-yard touchdown on the first play of the game, Brady handed the Ravens the first of his three first-quarter turnovers, giving the Ravens the ball back on the Pats’ 13.  Five runs later, it was 14-0 Ravens; two turnovers later, it was 24-0, with Joe Flacco having contributed nothing through the air.

The Patriots’ hopes rode entirely on the possibility that Brady would provide some miracle comeback, but with Randy Moss a non-factor and the Ravens’ pass rush free to take after the quarterback, Brady had the worst playoff game of his career.  He threw for 154 yards on 42 attempts, with three interceptions and that first-quarter fumble.  The Ravens were able to run the ball all day, winning despite Flacco’s underwhelming performance that earned him a 10.0 passer rating for the day, which would be fine in platform diving but is 148.3 points shy of perfect in the NFL.

The Patriots had a reasonable season statistically – fifth in points allowed, sixth in scoring – but lacked a signature win against a good team.  It was an unimpressive season that can’t be blamed on a major injury like last year; it’s possible that Belichick’s genius has passed its sell-by date.  While the Colts and Chargers will surely be among the contenders for the AFC title again next year, there’s no reason to reflexively put the Patriots in amongst the league’s elite.   The last gasp of the Team of the 00’s came two months ago when Kevin Faulk was tackled on the Lucas Oil Stadium turf.

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