Fireworks were still lighting up the Jacksonville sky that cool February evening in 2005 when massive, sweat-stained, bone-weary men tried to make sense of what had just taken place.
Thrust onto podiums and squeezed into corners of locker rooms, they peeled away not only mangled pieces of tape, but their inhibitions, too. It was over. Super Bowl XXXIX. The hype. The 2004 season.
Patriots wiped away the blood and smiled, for they had won, 24-21.
Eagles wiped away the blood and grinded their teeth, for they were not convinced they should have lost.
"You get so close you can feel it and taste it," Donovan McNabb said at the conclusion of a night on which he had completed 30 of 51 passes for 357 yards - his three touchdowns offset, however, by three interceptions.
And just how close were these Eagles to these Patriots, now basking in the glory of a third Super Bowl win in four years?
"About 3 points' worth," snapped Philadelphia coach Andy Reid. "We're right there."
Maybe they were that night, but tonight, as the Eagles and Patriots prepare to meet for the first time on a competitive stage since that Super Bowl tango at
At least that is what the bookmaking crowd suggests is the difference between teams that have traveled in different directions since their last meeting. Whereas the Patriots are 10-0 and the biggest favorite since the English in the Falklands, the Eagles are seemingly stuck in neutral, a 5-5 team with an injured quarterback, a predictable offense built around one weapon, and a coach who has had his personal life dragged painfully into a public spotlight.
But while the differences may be glaring, it should not be overlooked how similar the teams are in organizational philosophy. Start at the top, where Philadelphia owner Jeffrey Lurie traces his roots to Chestnut Hill, merely the length of a few football fields from Brookline, home of Patriots owner Bob Kraft.
There was a time when Lurie fancied himself the owner of the Patriots, but when Kraft won that quest in 1994, the man who made his fortune as a movie producer bought the Eagles. Success has come to both men. The Eagles have won the NFC East five of the last six years and have posted 10 10-win seasons in Lurie's tenure. The Patriots have dominated the AFC East and won three of the last six Super Bowls.
"Uncanny similarities," conceded Lurie during an interview with the Globe prior to the 2005 Super Bowl. "Both Bob and myself bought struggling franchises in major media markets with stadium problems. There was potential in both cases for both franchises to become marquee sports organizations, but when we started, we were far from it."
Most proud of how they have let football people run their organizations, each owner entrusted head coaching duties to men who had made their marks as heralded coordinators, though on different sides of the ball. Reid, an offensive mind, came to Philadelphia in 1999; Belichick, a defensive guru, came aboard in Foxborough after a contentious departure from the Jets.
"We let our football people make the football decisions," said Lurie. That common philosophy has led to some parallel personnel experiences.
Flamboyant wide receivers, for instance. For those who are celebrating the presence of Randy Moss in New England, it should be mentioned that Philadelphia went this route a few years ago, too.
Reid and the Eagles took a chance on Terrell Owens in 2004 when nearly everyone else in football was skeptical in light of the way Owens had made life miserable for anyone connected with his former team, the 49ers.
But Reid felt Owens's deep-threat skills were a missing ingredient for McNabb, and for one season, at least, he was right. Owens caught 77 passes in 14 games, good for 1,200 yards and 14 touchdowns, and while so much of his production is outweighed by his outrageous comments and self-serving attitude, there was nothing but heartfelt admiration expressed at Super Bowl XXXIX when the wide receiver played a spirited game just 6 1/2 weeks after ankle surgery. Not surprisingly, he extended the most praise.
"A lot of people in the world didn't believe I could play," said Owens after he had made nine receptions for 122 yards. "But the power of faith carried me all the way."
Truthfully, it barely carried him out of the summer. His selfish demeanor and big mouth lifted him the rest of the way, from his criticism of McNabb to his demands to rework a seven-year, $49 million contract. It ignited a soap opera that pretty much pushed the Eagles' 2005 season onto the scrap pile. The star quarterback went down with a knee injury in Week 9 and was lost for the season; the star wide receiver was suspended first for four games "for conduct detrimental to the team," then banished for good.
The Eagles went 6-10 the year after the Super Bowl, and while they bounced back to regain their perch atop the NFC East at 10-6 a year ago, they haven't kept pace with the Patriots since crossing paths in Jacksonville.
How has the gap widened so much since that last meeting? Glimpses at some personnel moves indicate differing philosophies. Start with the defenses. Of the 11 men who started for the Eagles that night in Jacksonville, only three will be in place this evening, all of them in the secondary: Lito Sheppard, Sheldon Brown, and Brian Dawkins. A fourth starter, Jevon Kearse, has seemingly fallen into disfavor with coaches and was benched last week.
One by one, defensive starters for that 2004 Eagles team have left the organization.
Some went bitterly (Corey Simon took exception to the franchise tag, forcing his move to the Colts), some grabbed greater wealth (left end Derrick Burgess signed a free agent contract with Oakland in 2005; linebackers Keith Adams and Dhani Jones and safety Michael Lewis inked deals with Miami, New Orleans, and San Francisco, respectively); while others were either traded (right end Darwin Walker to Buffalo) or released (linebacker Jeremiah Trotter earlier this year).
Compare that with the Patriots' belief in the defensive players who carried them in 2004. Of their 11 starters, nine are still in tow: Rosevelt Colvin, Vince Wilfork, Jarvis Green, Tedy Bruschi, Mike Vrabel, Randall Gay, Asante Samuel, Rodney Harrison, and Eugene Wilson. Ty Warren and Richard Seymour weren't listed as starters in Jacksonville, but they obviously played big roles for the Patriots, as they still do. Thus does the team have 11 of their best 13 defenders still intact from the 2005 Super Bowl, with only Willie McGinest (now with Cleveland) and Roman Phifer (retired) not part of the scene.
Offensively, one could argue that the Eagles' commitment to McNabb has hurt them, while the Patriots' commitment to Tom Brady has improved them dramatically. Slowed by knee injuries that sidelined him for the final eight games of 2005 and the final seven of 2006, McNabb is just 14-15 as a starter since that night in Jacksonville. With ankle and thumb injuries, he doesn't appear to be the mobile and strong-armed quarterback he was in 2004, though if a comparison could be made to Brady's present situation, Philadelphia hasn't exactly beefed up his arsenal.
Oh, Brian Westbrook remains an integral part of the Eagles' offense, just as he was that night in Jacksonville, and tight end L.J. Smith is still a consistent threat. But since the bitter breakup with Owens, the Eagles have failed to plug any sort of electricity into their offense. Donté Stallworth was a part of the solution in 2006, but when the Patriots chose to dramatically upgrade their receiving corps last offseason, Stallworth joined Wes Welker in a wide receiver exodus to Foxborough - the crown jewel of the group being Moss.
Gold stars to Belichick & Co., says Reid.
"I thought it was a great move. I stay in touch with Bill. I talked to him just after he [signed Moss] and I thought it was a smart move. Where Tom is in his career, I felt he and Randy would get along great, and that's what happened."
Reid isn't surprised, because he saw how this sort of partnership of talents worked in 2004 with Owens and McNabb.
"The thing that's similar is that Tom feels like he can put the ball up and he might be throwing into coverage a little bit, but he trusts that Randy is going to make the play," said Reid. "That's how Donovan felt with T.O."
Two years later, you'd get plenty of rhetoric on both sides as to whether the Eagles or Owens ruined that relationship, but the greater point is, the Eagles have not been able to fill the void, while the Patriots eventually have made fans forget David Givens and Deion Branch.
Battered, bruised, and sidelined frequently since his Super Bowl experience, McNabb has struggled to find a rhythm. His only weapon appears to be Westbrook, who remains one of the NFL's most gallant backs (3,495 yards rushing, 2,536 receiving in 49 games going back to 2004), but one who can be easily singled out, if a defensive team chooses to do so. Many of them do, which explains in great part why the Eagles have struggled to a 21-21 record since that Super Bowl appearance, while the Patriots' allegiance to a spread-it-out offense has produced a 32-10 mark over that same stretch.
"It's easy to blame the quarterback when the team loses, but I'm definitely not the whole reason why we lost these games," McNabb said recently. "I can definitely help, yes I can. But I [shouldn't get] blamed for everything that goes on around here."
His counterpart in tonight's game is singing a different tune. Brady takes the heaps and heaps of credit he receives and spreads them out to an endless list of players.
But while the contrast between the fortunes of McNabb and Brady is striking, there remain consistent threads.
Take their head coaches, for instance. Each has been subjected to media scrutiny in the aftermath of personal problems. Belichick went through a divorce and was accused of having an affair that led to another couple's divorce. There are also the barbs that constantly come forth in the wake of "Spygate" earlier this year.
Just last month Judge Steven O'Neill of Montgomery County in Pennsylvania announced that Reid's home appeared to be "more or less like a drug emporium," an admonishment brought about from criminal charges against Reid's two oldest children, sons Garrett, 24, and Britt, 22.
Arrested on the same day last January, but in unrelated cases, the boys are currently serving jail terms - Garrett 2-23 months for his role in a car crash while allegedly under the influence of heroin; Britt 8-23 months for a road rage incident in which he waved a gun.
As Belichick has done when his personal life has been in the media spotlight, Reid stood tight-lipped and refused to get engaged with reporters.
He merely asked that people respect his private life.
"As parents we have huge concerns for our two boys," he said in a statement. "This has been a battle we have dealt with for a few years and I'm sure we'll continue to address the situation."
Garrett and Britt Reid had become popular faces within the Eagles family since Reid arrived in 1999. Both served as ball boys and both seemingly had a love of the game. Never did Reid intend for his personal heartache to become public news, but Judge O'Neil took care of that, and it apparently struck a nerve. When it was suggested in some corners that Reid step aside until this problem cleared up and he steadfastly insisted he would remain committed to his job, the mail flowed into team headquarters.
As in New England, where it remains "In Bill We Trust," there was overwhelming support for Reid, said club officials. OK, maybe not as strong as it was in the days leading up to Super Bowl XXXIV, when visions of the first Philadelphia pro football championship since 1960 danced in fans' heads, but they showed they were behind their coach.
Maybe there is more compassion in Philadelphia than callous critics have led us to believe.
Or maybe they recall that less than three years ago Reid had their beloved team on the threshold of the football promised land, and maybe - just maybe - he remembers the way.
Jim McCabe can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org