- The Washington Times - Saturday, November 24, 2001

After merely splitting their first six games, including a choke job at home against lowly Arizona, the Philadelphia Eagles appeared to have problems. They were 1-3 at Veterans Stadium. Pro Bowl halfback Duce Staley was hurting and the super-aggressive defense had forced a mere 10 turnovers.

That was then. This is now: In winning their past three games (two at the Vet), the Eagles one of the preseason Super Bowl favorites have outscored the Cardinals, Minnesota and Dallas 105-27, Staley has rushed for 297 yards and the defense has forced 10 turnovers.

"We haven't reached our full potential," third-down back/kick returner Brian Mitchell said. "Our defense has played at a high level the whole year. Offensively, we've shown spurts. Hopefully we can have a game where both the running game and passing game show up.

"We're playing great on special teams except for kickoff coverage," Mitchell said. "We're a team full of talent, but we have a lot of young guys [10 of the 22 starters have been in the NFL for four seasons or less]. They have to realize that this is a very mental game and learn exactly what to do so that when they have the opportunities, they won't make mistakes."

With one game left against a team with a winning record (Dec. 22 at San Francisco), Philadelphia (6-3) is moving toward its second straight playoff berth after winning only 14 games from 1997 through 1999. And after pulling out a 10-9 victory at Giants Stadium on Oct. 22 to end a nine-game losing streak against New York, the Eagles are poised to depose the defending NFC champion Giants and capture their first NFC East title in 13 years.

"To know that you're going to get everybody's best shot is a challenge, and we welcome it," said third-year coach Andy Reid. "I've told our players, 'We've earned the right to be in this position. Go enjoy it. Play your hearts out.'"

Washington coach Marty Schottenheimer, whose 4-5 Redskins visit the Eagles tomorrow, knows it will be a challenge trying to limit big plays by versatile quarterback Donovan McNabb and a Philadelphia defense led by end Hugh Douglas, linebacker Jeremiah Trotter and safety Brian Dawkins. The Eagles have yet to allow more than 21 points, and their 13-point average is the NFC's stingiest. Only Green Bay and Pittsburgh record sacks more often, and only the Giants and Cleveland have been stiffer in the red zone.

"Their defense is one of the best we've seen," Schottenheimer said. "They create a lot of havoc. You've got be very careful with the ball because they take it away from you, and they seem to feed on that."

The Eagles also feed off the gifts of McNabb, their top pick in the 1999 draft.

"Donovan's a very gifted athlete," Schottenheimer said. "He has the ability to run fast and make you miss. He's a guy you always have to account for. The thing that's not talked about a lot is that he brings tremendous leadership to their team."

McNabb, the Eagles' leading rusher last season with 629 yards and a sterling 7.3-yard average after Staley was lost for the year in Week 5, isn't running quite as often this fall with the emergence of rookie back Correll Buckhalter and Staley's recent return.

With the addition of free agent receiver James Thrash from the Redskins and the promotion of wideout Todd Pinkston, McNabb has become a better passer with 16 touchdowns and five interceptions. Philadelphia, whose offense has scored more than any other in the NFC except St. Louis', has produced touchdowns on 18 of its 30 penetrations of the opposing 20-yard line. That 60 percent success rate ranks second in the NFL.

"Last year everything was on Donovan's shoulders, and he had to play like Superman," Mitchell said. "This year he doesn't have to do that."


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