By Michael McCarthy

Center Jason Kelce (photo above) hobbled toward an equipment manager, who yanked Kecle’s shoulder pads off for him. Balls of rolled up tape covered the floor.

Cornerback Cary Williams sat on a folding chair in front of his locker in full uniform, cleats still tied, staring blankly ahead.

The Eagles’ 27-24 loss to the Washington Redskins had likely made them the first casualty of the NFC’s playoff picture, a collection of contenders that may still make the Eagles a 10-6 outsider.

Shortly after the Eagles fell at FedEx Field, they morphed from upset victims to desperate boosters, in need of massive help to crack the postseason. Once in full control at 9-3, they had sputtered to 9-6 with their third straight loss.

“This one stings bad,” linebacker Brandon Graham said. “Worse than a bee sting.”

The Eagles can only advance by winning the NFC East, having been eliminated from wild-card contention in a crowded field. They need to beat the New York Giants next week, a game that will only have meaning if the 10-4 Dallas Cowboys lose Sunday at home to the Indianapolis Colts. The Eagles would then also need the Cowboys to lose next week at FedEx Field to the Redskins.

“I was a big Andrew Luck fan before,” said Eagles tight end Zach Ertz, who played with the Colts’ quarterback at Stanford. “Now I’m going to be an even bigger one.”

The NFC has settled into a state of muddled chaos, even after the Eagles’ loss afforded a measure of clarity. The Detroit Lions joined the Arizona Cardinals as the second team to clinch a playoff berth. Still, no division titles have been decided. The Green Bay Packers, Seattle Seahawks and Cowboys could all earn first-round byes or miss the playoffs altogether, but Philadelphia’s loss brought them closer to a spot. The NFC South will be won by any of three teams, none of which can finish with a record better than 8-8.

In the NFC North, the Packers will host the 2-12 Tampa Bay Buccaneers while the Lions face the Chicago Bears, a team in such disarray that it’s easy to lose track of which quarterback is getting ripped by his offensive coordinator and which is starting. Assuming both win, the Lions will hold the division tiebreaker heading into a Week 17 showdown at Lambeau Field that will decide the division.

On the periphery sit the Eagles, who have the grave misfortune of playing in the wrong division. The NFC South features four teams with losing records, led at the moment by the 6-8 New Orleans Saints. The Eagles could win four more games than any team from the division and head home early.

Should the Eagles finish with 10 wins, frustration would mix with self-flagellation. The Eagles lost to Dallas at home and lost to potential wild-card competitors Green Bay, Seattle and Arizona, making it likely they’ll finish the season with just one win against the NFC playoff field.

“If we win 11 games and it’s not good enough to get in, shame on us because we didn’t win the right games,” Eagles Coach Chip Kelly said last week. “That’s the bottom line. That’s what this whole deal is all about, and we know it going in.”

The Eagles can also look upon their past three games with regret, none more than Saturday. On Thanksgiving Day, the Eagles trounced the Cowboys, 33-10, in Dallas. They stood at 9-3, owned the tiebreaker over Dallas and held a one-game division lead. They lost to the Seahawks, which is no crime, then dropped the rematch against the Cowboys. They had suddenly dropped out of the playoff picture, but by beating the 3-11 Redskins they could retain realistic postseason hopes.

On a crucial day, the Eagles flopped and their spiral continued. They outgained the Redskins, 495 yards to 305, and Ertz caught a team-record 15 passes for 115 yards. But they committed 13 penalties for 102 yards, Mark Sanchez threw a back-breaking interception with less than two minutes left and place kicker Cody Parkey missed two field goals. At crucial moments, they folded.

“You have those team wins sometimes,” safety Malcolm Jenkins said. “This is definitely one of those team losses.”

The Eagles planned to gather Sunday to watch the Cowboys and root for the Colts, relying on someone else to save a season that once brimmed with promise. “You always want to be in control of the situation, but we’re not,” wide receiver Riley Cooper said. “Stranger things have happened.”

Their hope mixed with resignation. In another corner of the Eagles’ locker room, Kelce stood in front of a semi-circle of reporters, his hair pulled back into a pony tail. He bemoaned the wasted chances inside the 20-yard line, penalties and turnovers. He called them a “losing team,” even though they were still 9-6.

“We haven’t met the challenge this year,” Kelce said. “We failed too often.”

Kelce sat down and stared at his locker and considered that, no, they were not technically a losing team. But after the past three weeks, he couldn’t shake the fact that it felt that way.

“I don’t think that anybody is satisfied with being above .500 or being 9-6,” Kelce said. “The goal here is to compete for championships. It certainly was. It certainly still is. That’s why it’s so frustrating.”

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