- The Washington Times - Saturday, January 13, 2007

For the first time in five years, the Philadelphia Eagles will find themselves in an unfamiliar position tonight in the Superdome: road playoff underdog.

When they face the New Orleans Saints in an NFC Divisional game, the Eagles will break a string of seven consecutive home playoff games (not including the Super Bowl). New Orleans will be playing its first playoff game of any kind since 2000.

But playing on the road doesn’t bother the Eagles, who clinched the NFC East on the strength of road wins against Washington, the New York Giants and Dallas in consecutive weeks. Philadelphia is 5-3 away from Lincoln Financial Field this season.

“Mentally, we know that we can go on the road and win games,” free safety Brian Dawkins said. “The first thing is, you have to believe that you can do it in order to go out and do it. You can practice and prepare but if you think you don’t have a shot, then you’re already defeated before you touch the field.”

When the Eagles hit the road Dec. 10 to face the Redskins, they were 6-6 and without franchise quarterback Donovan McNabb. But they jumped to a 21-3 lead and held on for a 21-19 win over Washington. Victories over the Giants and Dallas by a combined 30 points followed.

“It’s served us well,” Dawkins said. “We can look back at that schedule and those three games and say they were more beneficial than before when we would look forward to them and say, ‘This is going to be a hard road.’ ‘

Dawkins is one of four healthy Eagles (offensive tackles William Thomas and Jon Runyan and linebacker Jeremiah Trotter) who started the team’s last road playoff victory. Philadelphia was the underdog at 13-3 Chicago in the 2001 season, but won 33-19, holding the Bears to 184 yards.

“I remember the Chicago game because we were underdogs and those guys were having a great season and we really took it to them,” Trotter said.

When the Eagles fell to 5-6, their defense wasn’t playing up to the standards set by players like Dawkins and Trotter. In a Week 12 loss at Indianapolis, the Eagles allowed 420 yards, including 237 rushing yards, falling 45-21.

For long-time defensive coordinator Jim Johnson, the Colts game represented rock bottom.

“The only time I really felt a team was running through us was the Colts,” he said. “The other games, we allowed some long runs and missed some tackles, but I never felt we were being knocked off the ball. The Colts game bothered me.”

Said Dawkins: “We weren’t tackling worth a darn at one point. Those are the things that we took pride in and we had to start doing when we had the opportunity.”

Since the Colts game, the Eagles are 6-0 and the defense has 10 interceptions. But they haven’t faced a passing attack like New Orleans’ during the win streak. The Saints, who have never reached an NFC title game, much less a Super Bowl, in franchise history, led the NFL in passing yards this season.

In the teams’ first meeting, a 27-24 Saints win Oct. 15 in New Orleans, the Saints sprinted to a 17-3 first-half lead. Quarterback Drew Brees passed for 275 yards.

“We knew they were going to come out fast like that,” Dawkins said. “But we had too many mistakes defensively and it took us too long to get going.”

The Saints have lost four of their last five home games but have turned their entire franchise around since last year’s 3-13 debacle. Brees has been complemented offensively by draft picks Reggie Bush and Marques Colston, who have combined for 158 catches for 1,780 yards and 10 touchdowns. New Orleans’ first preference is to pass, and that becomes an even better option because the Eagles will be without Pro Bowl cornerback Lito Sheppard, who sustained a dislocated elbow last week against the Giants. Sheppard leads the Eagles with six interceptions.

“I wouldn’t say [the Eagles are] doing anything differently because the first time we played them, they were 4-1 and playing with a lot of confidence and this time around, they’ve won six in a row and are playing with a lot of confidence,” Brees said. “They’re the same type of defense. They have a very aggressive mentality that thrives on getting turnovers and playing very physical.”

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