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Dolphins swoon while Eagles rise

MIAMI -- Just about the time the last Miami Dolphins straggler ambled slowly off the field early Tuesday morning, moments after a disastrous 34-27 loss to Philadelphia, the public address system piped out the classic Frank Sinatra standard, "That's Life."

It appeared, at first blush, a rather incongruous selection. But upon further consideration, on an evening that witnessed more than its share of (replay) reviews, maybe an Ol' Blue Eyes lament was an appropriate choice.

Especially if you paraphrase the lyrics, ever so slightly, to describe the seemingly annual plight of the Dolphins.

Riding high in September, shot down in December, right? OK, so maybe it lacks the snappy punch of the original, but for the latest Dolphin team to stage a costly collapse in December, well, it kind of fits. And after all, the final two words of the song -- bye-bye -- certainly were particularly poignant.

Although not yet officially eliminated from playoff contention, the Dolphins fell to 8-6 with a second consecutive December defeat, and now trail three other teams for the pair of AFC wild card berths. Only the most cockeyed optimists in the somber Dolphins locker room believe the wounded team will find a way to squeeze into the postseason. And while coach Dave Wannstedt declined to address his future, it now appears that his tenure here will conclude in two weeks, at the end of the regular season.

Wannstedt's a good guy, but Monday night represented another bad omen. The Dolphins are now 9-11 after November during his four-year stint.

Essentially, the streaking Eagles, winners now of nine straight games, rolled on. And the Dolphins, as one veteran defender allowed in frustration, "probably rolled out."

Hardly regarded as an offensive juggernaut, the Eagles may now be hitting stride, with both the passing and ground games picking up steam. Monday's win allowed them to maintain an edge for the homefield advantage in the NFC bracket. There certainly was no indication the Eagles won't play in the third straight conference championship game, given the remarkable job by the players and a diligent coaching staff.

Speaking of coaching staffs, one of the few remaining Miami fans left at Pro Player Stadium in the waning minutes, when the hearty band of Eagles fans who had traveled for the game basically ruled the roost, held up a hand-lettered placard that simply read: "Wanny is Gone-y."

And, for the classy Wannstedt, that is likely the case.

"Too many mistakes," conceded a disappointed Wannstedt. "Too many fundamentals that we didn't do very well. We missed tackles. We dropped passes. We had penalties. I don't know how to explain it. We had a good week of practice and it seemed like every player knew the importance of this game, but ... I don't know what else to say."

This is, once again, an enigmatic Miami team. Its talent level, even with an offense that is suspect in personnel and play-calling, is better than most rosters in the league. That said, it is a team that usually talks a better game than it plays in critical contests, and that was the case against an Eagles team whose 0-2 start to the 2003 season is now nothing but a distant memory.

From the first offensive snap, when Eagles quarterback Donovan McNabb connected deep down the middle to wide receiver Todd Pinkston for 59 yards, the Dolphins did not respond to the challenge. That isn't unusual for the Miami offense but, on defense, it is surprising when the Dolphins are so overwhelmed.

In the first half alone, Miami surrendered 24 points, a total the Dolphins had allowed in an entire game only once in 13 previous outings. Philadelphia's first three touchdown drives were of 80, 80 and 75 yards, but averaged just six snaps. McNabb's first five completions featured four plays of 13 or more yards and three of 20 yards or more.

That the Eagles offense was so jump-started to some extent precluded the Dolphins from just pounding tailback Ricky Williams into the guts of a Philadelphia defense that has been overly generous against the run. Miami did rush for 177 yards, a startling amount, and the ninth straight game in which the Eagles have surrendered 100 or more yards on the ground. But the powerful Williams, slowed by a shoulder injury, never quite got into rhythm.

Since the Dolphins never led in the game, and were playing catchup less than two minutes into the contest, they could not dictate the pace.

"It wasn't our kind of game," said wide receiver Chris Chambers. "We'd make a play or two, but all their big plays just kept adding up."

To add to the indignity, Eagles coach Andy Reid reached deep into his clearly endless back of tricks, with wide receiver Freddie Mitchell throwing a 26-yard touchdown pass to tailback Brian Westbrook. For a defense that kept insisting after the pummeling that it came into the contest primed for just about everything, the reality was that the Dolphins too often appeared flummoxed.

More critical, though, was that Miami tackled so poorly that even some modest Eagles forays morphed into big chunks of yardage. By the end of the first quarter, the Eagles unofficially had totaled 62 yards after the catch. Of the 261 passing yards gained by Philadelphia, it's likely that more than 100 came after the catch. And the Dolphins proved to be equal opportunity whiffers against the run as well, allowing the trio of Philadelphia tailbacks too add far too many yards after initial contact.

One key play, with 6:18 remaining in the game and the Dolphins desperately needing a defensive stop, characterized the evening. On a second-and-five play, McNabb threw in the right flat to Chad Lewis, about a yard beyond the line of scrimmage. The tight end ripped through a tackle attempt by middle linebacker Zach Thomas, bulled past strong safety Sammy Knight and carried free safety Brock Marion for two yards.

"We're usually such a sure-tackling team," Knight said. "It's one of the things we kind of pride ourselves on. For whatever reason, we didn't wrap people up tonight, and it just got to be an epidemic. There's no reason for it. There's no reason for us to be even standing here and talking about us maybe not being in the playoffs."

And yet, the plaintive wail of Dolphins fans has begun again, as have the annual debates about what this team lacks in toughness and grit.

In Miami, at this time of year, that's life. Whether it's Frank Sinatra supplying the tune, or disgruntled players and fans and coaches singing the same worn-out song, it's getting a little old.

Yep, that's life, all right. Life without the playoffs again.
Len Pasquarelli is a senior NFL writer for ESPN.com. Click here to send Len a question for possible use on ESPNEWS.