- The Washington Times - Sunday, November 6, 2005

While talking about Terrell Owens and Donovan McNabb, Santana Moss and Clinton Portis, forgetting about last week and looking ahead to this week, Joe Gibbs got around to the biggest truth regarding the log jam that is the NFC East:

Until further notice — even though their quarterback is banged up, their receiver was suspended by the team yesterday for yapping his mouth once too often and the defense is in crisis mode — the division still goes through the Philadelphia Eagles.

All of which makes tonight’s meeting at FedEx Field even more critical (for both teams), defining (for the Redskins) and intriguing (for observers). Both teams are 4-3, good for only a spot in the division cellar.

“They’ve proven they can do it. We haven’t,” Gibbs said. “They’ve certainly been the team to run it. They’re the boss.”

Continuing with the “boss” theme, tonight’s winner will be 5-3 and — in Bruce Springsteen-speak — might have “Better Days” ahead of them, but the loser will be 4-4 and could be aboard a “Downbound Train.”

“Both sides need this,” Eagles quarterback McNabb said. “A win could jump-start a lot of different things we want to do.”

McNabb was a prime subject of Owens’ latest tiff with the team. During a Thursday interview, Owens agreed the Eagles would be undefeated if Brett Favre were the quarterback. He apologized Friday, but coach Andy Reid suspended him yesterday morning.

Before learning of Owens’ suspension, Gibbs agreed with McNabb’s assertion, adding, “I’m sure they’re saying to themselves right now that they have to win this game and then they’re back at a point where they’re talking championship.”

To take the next step from surprising team in September and October to possible postseason participant and further close the gap between them and the Eagles, the Redskins have to start doing damage in the division.

Since 2000, the Redskins are a dismal 10-24 in division games, including three straight 1-5 seasons from 2002 to 2004 and seven consecutive losses to the Eagles by an average of 18.4 points.

“The division games are so important, and that’s one area we have not been good in the last four, five years,” said right tackle Jon Jansen, a Redskin since 1999. “It’s time to measure ourselves.”

Both teams are coming off embarrassing defeats — the Redskins lost 36-0 to the Giants, and Philadelphia was stomped at Denver 49-21. And both teams have injury issues — the Redskins are likely to be without defensive tackle Cornelius Griffin (hip), and McNabb (rib, sports hernia) missed parts of practice this week. There’s also the issue of who replaces Owens’ production. Greg Lewis and rookie Reggie Brown are expected to start at receiver.

Eagles defensive coordinator Jim Johnson could have been speaking for both teams when he said, “at least we don’t have the bye this week.”

Indeed, both teams are eager to erase last week’s memories. But remembering what happened last week would serve the Eagles and Redskins tonight.

For instance, what’s up with Philadelphia’s defense? The 49 points allowed were the most by the Eagles since a 62-10 loss to the Giants in 1972, and Philadelphia has been outscored 55-0 in the first quarter on the road. Following the Broncos game, linebacker Jeremiah Trotter said, “We can’t hold a team to a field goal to save our lives.” Opponents have scored on 15 of their 26 trips inside the 20-yard line.

The Eagles are 25th in yards, 21st in rushing, 25th in passing and 24th in scoring. In five road games, they have spotted their opponents leads of 14-0, 17-0, 27-3 and 28-0.

“Foreign territory, a little bit,” Johnson said. “For us to be giving up touchdown passes and big plays, it’s very unusual. … We’ve always been good in the red area, and all of a sudden we’re slacking a little bit.”

Johnson’s counterpart at Redskin Park — Gregg Williams — is facing similar problems. The Redskins have been big-play prone the last several weeks, particularly in the running game. Tiki Barber rushed for a career-high 206 yards last week.

The Eagles, however, don’t really run it — only 27.6 percent of their snaps have been runs, and only 17 percent of their yards have come on the ground.

“If I had their quarterback, I would have a tough time [running],” Gibbs said. “But they also have a tough running back [Brian Westbrook], so they have a tough assignment deciding who to get the ball to.”

McNabb directs an offense that leads the NFL in passing (295.7 yards a game) against the league’s best pass defense (152.7). Minus Owens, the play-making responsibilities will fall on Westbrook, who gave the Redskins fits last year running and receiving.

“I think he’s one of the best players in the NFC,” Williams said. “A lot of the success of our game plan will be about how we play against him.”

How the Redskins play tonight could crystallize where this team is heading — toward mediocrity or the postseason? And you better believe they know it.

“If I said [the game wasn’t critical], I’d be lying,” assistant head coach-offense Joe Bugel said. “Both teams are backed against the wall in the division, and you have to win and you have to win at home.”

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