PHILADELPHIA -- Six weeks' work went up like flash paper.
Six weeks of taking care of business evaporated in one calamitous afternoon.
Six weeks of playing themselves into position, and then in one anticlimactic, self-destructive game they died at their own hands.
Special teams, the accident that had been waiting to happen to the Eagles all season, finally caught them yesterday.
Dead in the heart.
They botched a kickoff return for a safety, and then in the crusher, they bungled punt coverage and gave up an 85-yard return that catapulted the inflamed Dallas Cowboys to a 25-13 victory that put the visitors in the playoffs and the Birds on Death Row.
All those weeks without crippling themselves, and then in what became a one-game season, the Eagles suddenly reverted to old and ugly habits.
These were the strokes with which they committed hari-kari:
* Two interceptions.
* Seven sacks allowed.
* No take-aways.
* And special teams, special teams, special teams. Butchery, butchery, butchery.
Actually, they weren't special at all.
"I haven't figured out how many points we gave up," said punter Jeff Feagles, speaking of the special teams. "I just know it was enough to lose the game."
And so it was.
They almost always end this way, don't they, these crucial late-season games with so much at stake? The wind is knife-edged, the cold stings marrow deep, and usually it comes down to a kick of some sort, the ball arcing through the December dusk, carrying a whole season with it.
Yesterday, the kick of consequence was a high, hissing spiral by Feagles on the second snap of the fourth quarter. The punt was a 44-yarder, just about perfect for coverage.
At the Dallas 15, Kelvin Martin, a fifth-year pro from Boston College who makes his living catching javelins, bobbled the ball. He was encircled by five green jerseys. Perhaps the Eagles relaxed for just a blink as the ball wobbled on Martin's gloved fingertips.
For whatever reason, Martin squirted between all those jerseys, straight up the field. In his streaking wake was left a series of frantic, flopping, flailing green shirts, the last one Feagles
From 8-10, the Cowboys went to 15-10.
And the Eagles went to the edge of oblivion.
"We anticipated a side return," said Ken Rose, the captain of the special teams. "He'd been doing that almost the whole day. We didn't expect him to shoot up the middle. The punt was fine. If anything, we might have run in too deep. It's hard to reverse when you've run that far that fast.
"Then, he just split us."
Even the Eagles' many-splendored defense buckled after that. It gave up what once was unthinkable -- an 80-yard touchdown drive. And then, dispirited, another field goal.
The Birds, numbed, trudged off knowing that they had been their own worst enemy.
They lost even though the other team had just 210 yards in total offense.
They lost even though the other team's quarterback was a pathetic 2-for-17 in the first half, a laboring 9-for-31 for the game.
They lost even though, in a real rarity, they actually outrushed the other team. Almost 2 to 1, at that.
No, the numbers didn't add up to a loss, and when they don't, then you look elsewhere for the reason, and then it always shows up in the special-teams play.
With the exception of the place-kicking of Roger Ruzek, the Eagles' special teams have been flirting with catastrophe all year. If you listened closely during punt and kickoff coverage, you could hear "tick . . . tick . . . tick."
Martin triggered the inevitable detonation.
Before that, Rod Harris, the Eagles' return man, had given Dallas points and confidence, and an early lead, with a series of fumbles and poor judgments.
Earlier this season, Harris seemed to be continually on the verge of breaking a return. Recently, though, his catches have turned into uneasy adventures -- will he get it? And if so, will he then hold it?
He fumbled the kickoff following Dallas' first field goal, scooped up the ball, and then, while holding it two-handed in front of him in an open invitation, had the ball shaken from him. In the scramble, Dennis McKnight inadvertently kicked the ball into the end zone, where it was recovered by John Booty, who was tackled by the Cowboys for a safety.
"I should have just tucked the ball away," Harris said. "I wanted to make something happen, and I got sandwiched by two guys and the ball popped out."
Not long after the fumble, Harris started in late on a punt, intending to fair-catch it, then twirled away at the last instant. The official ruled that the ball had touched Harris' foot, and awarded possession to Dallas at the Eagles' 8. A lengthy review correctly reversed that decision.
"I had it lined up, but then the ball started fading back the other way," Harris said.
In fairness, catching a punt while the ball is getting bounced around by swirling winds is a daunting task. But in their most crucial game of the season, the Eagles failed to do it. They suffered a series of breakdowns at the most inopportune moments.
No one is more acutely aware of that than the Eagles.
"We played a month and a half to get here. It's a shame the way it turned out."
That will serve as well as anything as an epitaph.