Friday, November 19, 2004

The Philadelphia Eagles are the NFC’s unstoppable force. They’re 8-1 overall, 6-0 against NFC rivals with an average winning margin of 20 points. They lead the league in turnover ratio and are the only team in the top six in both scoring and scoring defense.

But before South Philly entrepreneurs start printing Super Bowl T-shirts, they should recall that the Eagles had the same look this time last year. After an 0-2 start, Philadelphia went 12-2 the rest of the way and was an overwhelming favorite against upstart Carolina in the NFC Championship game. Of course, that wound as up a 14-3 loss — the Eagles’ third straight defeat a game shy of the Super Bowl.

“I don’t know how much more motivated [we] are than before, because they’ve been fairly highly motivated the last few years,” said Andy Reid, in his sixth year as the Eagles’ coach.

Quarterback Donovan McNabb said the mission to win the Super Bowl hasn’t changed, but the Eagles have improved their chemistry as their experience together has deepened.

Other than linebackers Nate Wayne and Dhani Jones and high-profile newcomers Terrell Owens and Jevon Kearse, all of the starters have spent at least three seasons in Reid’s program. By comparison, just eight of Washington’s starters have been Redskins for three years.

“A lot of us have continued to get better and better as the thing continues,” McNabb said. “Our chemistry has kind of propelled some of the things we’ve been able to do.”

No team is within five victories of Philadelphia’s 54-19 consistency the past five years. The Eagles should win a fourth consecutive division title, a feat no team has accomplished since Dallas from 1992 to 1996.

But those Cowboys went 10-2 in the playoffs and won three Super Bowls. These Eagles are just 5-4 in postseason and haven’t been to the Super Bowl since 1980.

“They’ve dominated the division, and they’ve got tremendous coaching,” said Joe Gibbs, who has coached the Redskins to three Super Bowl titles. “If the rest of us are going to try to compete [in the NFC East], we’re going to have to find a way to try to catch up to them. It looks like they’ve got a whole step up on everybody else.”

After the stunning loss to the Panthers, Reid realized that for the Eagles to finally get to the Super Bowl, they needed two more elite players: a game-changing receiver (last year’s wideouts had just five touchdowns) and a major pass rusher (the ends had just eight sacks).

So Philadelphia traded with San Francisco for Owens (and extended his contract seven years to the tune of $42million) and signed Tennessee free agent Kearse to an eight-year, $66million contract — a record for a defensive lineman. To make room, the Eagles let former Pro Bowl cornerbacks Troy Vincent and Bobby Taylor and running back Duce Staley depart, replacing them with youngsters Sheldon Brown, Lito Sheppard and Brian Westbrook.

The moves are paying big-time dividends. With a league-leading 12 touchdowns and 884 yards on 55 catches, Owens has taken advantage of McNabb’s arm strength and cleared the box for the running game.

Kearse is among the NFL leaders with six sacks. Sheppard tops the NFC with four interceptions. Westbrook averages 4.8 yards a carry. And Brown just earned a six-year contract extension.

“In the age of the salary cap, you have to be willing to let [older] guys go and let young guys play,” Reid said. “They’ve stepped up to the challenge so far and done a great job for us.”

The Eagles’ only misstep this season came two Sundays ago in Pittsburgh where they were pounded 27-3 by the AFC’s Steelers.

“We got our tails kicked,” Reid said. “I was curious to see how the guys would come back and they came back with some character and showed some mental toughness Monday [in thrashing the Cowboys 49-21 in Dallas]. That kind of tells you what kind of guys you have.”

For now, his guys are clearly the NFC’s best.

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