- The Washington Times - Thursday, December 25, 2003

The Philadelphia Eagles could do a great commercial for the Postal Service: Nothing stops them either.

Not free agent defections. Not injuries that wiped out three Pro Bowl defensive backs for much of the season. Not badly losing their first two games, both at home. Not even Rush Limbaugh’s racial insult of quarterback Donovan McNabb.

Despite all that, the 11-4 Eagles have reached the postseason for the fourth consecutive season. Last week’s loss to San Francisco ended a franchise-record nine-game winning streak and left them behind St. Louis in the race for home-field advantage, but the Eagles are on the verge of a second straight first-round bye and a third straight NFC East title.

“I never really doubted that it would get turned around,” fifth-year coach Andy Reid said. “I had a lot of trust in the guys and the coaches. We just had to step back, analyze a couple of things, get back on the horse and keep riding. I’m proud of the guys and the coaches for not flinching a bit.”

Unlike some coaches, the laid-back Reid didn’t flinch after opening with losses to Tampa Bay and New England by a combined 48-10.

“Andy’s a calm and cool guy,” McNabb said. “There was no need for panicking. It’s a 16-game season. If we could keep the same approach, things would begin to fall into place. [And] the experience of guys playing together and playing well helped.”

Twenty-one of the 53 Eagles have been around for the entire four-year playoff run, and the stolid Reid has never varied from his formula: a run-oriented offense, a physical defense and strong special teams.

“You know one way, and that’s kind of what got you here, so you stick with it,” Reid said. “You tweak it where it needs to be tweaked, but you want to trust the basic foundation.”

That has been true despite an uncharacteristic season by the Eagles, at least statistically. Philadelphia ranks 19th on offense and 21st in defense; no other playoff contender isn’t at least 12th on one side of the ball. Philadelphia’s opponents have more first downs, total yards, passing yards, rushing yards, time of possession and sacks.

What hasn’t changed is that McNabb remains the focal point and that there’s no dominant receiver or runner (with the exception of halfback Duce Staley in 2002). With 47 catches, James Thrash is the only Eagle with more than 35, while speedster Brian Westbrook, powerful Correll Buckhalter and Staley have shared the backfield work remarkably well. They have combined for 28 touchdowns, 2,311 yards from scrimmage and 1,551 rushing yards.

“We trust all three of them,” Reid said. “We’ve been very fortunate that it has worked.”

Westbrook has emerged as the No.1 rusher and No.2 receiver. And when Philadelphia was 90 seconds from losing to the New York Giants to sink to 2-4, Westbrook returned a punt 84 yards for the winning touchdown. The Eagles didn’t lose again until last week.

“Brian has made some very big plays for us,” Reid said. “That was a big one. Good things happened after that, so I guess you would look at that as kind of a jump start.”

McNabb took over from there, shaking off Limbaugh’s comments and an ugly 54.8 passer rating after seven weeks to post a 96.1 rating in the eight games since.

The Eagles, who lost the 2001 NFC Championship game to the host Rams and last year’s at home to the Buccaneers, probably will have to go back to St. Louis to reach their first Super Bowl in 23 years. Of course, Reid is nonplussed.

“We’d love to have [home-field advantage], but if we don’t, that’s not going to slow us down,” Reid said. “We’ll just keep plodding along.”


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