By Joseph Santoliquito
DALLAS, TX (CBS) — The room was rife with skepticism. Back in mid-January when he was introduced as the new head coach, no one thought Chip Kelly could turn around the Eagles wreck in one season.
Picture the William James character in “The Hurt Locker” walking down a dusty, barren street to defuse a bomb and you have a good idea the road Kelly was on.
It was a team that needed to be blown up after going a combined 12-20 the previous two years and failing to make the playoffs. The Eagles were mired in Andy Reid’s stale, predictable schemes, pocked by character issues endemic throughout the locker room.
From the outside looking in, it appeared as if it would take Kelly at least three years to clean it up and overhaul a 4-12 team into a viable playoff contender. Kelly was a good hire, an excellent football coach. Not a miracle worker. The prevailing thought was that it would take some time.
Who knew back on January 16 when Kelly was named the Eagles coach that a game on Dec. 29 in Dallas would mean something? Who knew the renovation would be this fast? Who knew Kelly would be this good this quickly, albeit the beneficiary of a few fortuitous breaks (no Aaron Rodgers against the Packers, no Tony Romo a second time)?
Who knew they would be here when the Eagles were 1-3? When they were 3-5?
Probably not even Kelly himself.
But the Eagles did what no one expected them to do, winning the NFC East Division by escaping Dallas with a 24-22 victory at AT&T Stadium, thanks to a clinching late fourth-quarter interception by Brandon Boykin.
By winning their second division title in the last four years, the Eagles ended one improbable journey and will embark on another when they host the No. 6 seed New Orleans Saints in the wildcard round on 8 p.m. Saturday at Lincoln Financial Field.
“I thought the first time I met [the team] I thought that they were a special group and I can’t tell you how much they made the transition for me coming from college to the pros, it’s an awesome feeling,” Kelly said. “It’s a real credit to those guys. They didn’t flinch. There was an interesting fourth quarter to say the least. But this group keeps battling and they found a way.”
Kelly, with a splash of eye black on his right cheek that looked like streaking mascara, expected the Eagles to win this season. He didn’t place a victory total up. He just wanted his team to compete.
Nick Foles redeemed himself from his off October game against Dallas, completing as many passes in the first half as he did that entire game. Foles was 17-for-26 for 263 yards and two touchdowns.
LeSean “Shady” McCoy finalized an incredible season with 1,607 yards rushing, becoming the first Eagle to lead the NFL in rushing since Hall of Famer Steve Van Buren in 1949. Needing just 37 yards to establish a new single-season team rushing record, McCoy dashed through Dallas for 131 yards and one touchdown (breaking Wilbert Montgomery’s previous mark of 1,512 in 1979).
The record-breaking run came in the second quarter on a typical McCoy carry. He took a handoff 16 yards, leaving Cowboys middle linebacker DeVonte Holloman groping for air.
Kyle Orton, starting for the injured Romo, was effective. He completed 30-of-46 for 358 yards—and two interceptions. Jason Witten killed the Eagles for a game-high 12 receptions for 135 yards.
“We didn’t really play well, we didn’t play Eagle football, me, myself, I really didn’t play up to my ability,” said McCoy, a toy championship wrestling belt slung over his right shoulder. “Without Romo, they still played well. They have a lot of playmakers and they showed up today. I knew we had to fight and get it and that’s what we did. It was tough, the last couple of years when we were losing. Now, things have changed with a new coach, new schemes, new focus.”
Linebacker Mychal Kendricks shined. He forced DeMarco Murray to fumble on the Cowboys’ opening drive, which resulted in an Alex Henery 47-yard field goal. Kendricks’ second-quarter interception, off a deflected pass intended for Witten, led to Foles’ second TD toss, a 14-yarder to a wide open Brent Celek.
Connor Barwin played a huge role, too. If Barwin didn’t bat down an Orton pass on a fourth-and-one play at the Eagles’ 40 with 11:53 left to play, the Eagles might be watching the playoffs next Saturday.
Instead, the Eagles will be playing in January for the first time since 2010, thanks to an 11-play, 60-yard drive that gobbled 5:37 off the clock. Bryce Brown’s 6-yard run sealed the victory after some very tense moments.
“The play Connor Barwin made was a huge play for us,” Kelly said. “Then our offense goes on the field and puts a drive together to put us back up.”
When Orton connected with Dez Bryant for a 32-yard TD with 3:50 to play, the game became more tension filled. The failed 2-point conversion alleviated some of the stress, and enabled the Eagles to cling to a 24-22 lead.
Then with Dallas in position to win with 1:49 left to play, Boykin ended it with an interception when Orton threw behind Miles Austin at the Dallas 40.
“The beauty of this game is you can’t script it,” Kelly said. “It seems every time someone tries to write the script, it doesn’t turn out that way, but if you just keep plugging away. I told them last night all they had to do was get caught in the act of being themselves and understand that they have everything they need to be successful.”
Starting with the baby-faced coach in his first NFL season.