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Eagles still have a chance at postseason

By Ray Parrillo

Inquirer Staff Writer

Andy Reid was in mid-sentence when a roar from the Eagles dressing room following their win in San Francisco last Sunday pierced the wall in the room in which he was standing for his post-game media conference.

After a brief pause, the Eagles coach said, "I hope everybody's OK."

For that moment, things couldn't have been better for Reid's erratic team. His players had erupted in cheers because the Cowboys had just suffered an unexpected loss to Arizona. Earlier that day, the Redskins had a more unlikely loss to lowly St. Louis. On Monday night, the Giants were handed their first defeat, losing to Cleveland.

In one weekend, the Eagles went from a team teetering from a high wire to one that had regained its balance in the chase for a playoff berth. They had just beaten an inferior team that was still hanging around late into the fourth quarter, and their three rivals in the tough NFC East had lost.

It was a perfect weekend for the Eagles, who are enjoying a bye week. But to avoid missing the playoffs for the third time in the last four seasons, they'll need more like it.

With the NFC East apparently stronger than at any time since Reid became head coach in 1999, it seems likely the Eagles will have to finish at least 10-6 to get a wild-card berth in the playoffs. Since 2000, only seven of the 18 NFC wild-card teams have finished with fewer than 10 wins. Given the strength of the Eagles division, it's conceivable 10-6 may not even be enough.

The Eagles currently stand at 3-3, which means they'll probably have to win seven of their final 10 games for a shot at the wild card. They are 0-2 in the division, 2-3 in the NFC, so there is ground to make up on a couple of tiebreakers.

Each weekend the rest of the season, the dominoes aren't going to fall in the Eagles favor. So it's paramount they tend to their own business before checking out-of-town scores. Based on how they've played so far, they'll have to fare much better to earn a playoff spot.

Here's what must happen:

First and foremost, Brian Westbrook must get healthy. Correll Buckhalter has been a solid backup, but Westbrook is among the game's most explosive and versatile offensive weapons and, with his receiving and blocking abilities, a more complete player than Buckhalter.

No Eagle needed the bye week more than Westbrook, who missed the 49ers game with what the team said is two fractured ribs. The Eagles lost to the Bears when Westbrook was sidelined with a sprained ankle. They have built so much of their offense around him, that it's hard to imagine they can make the playoffs if he's unable to perform at his peak.

The defense has to make up its mind if it's the one that led the NFL against the rush in the first four games, or the one that allowed Washington's Clinton Portis and San Francisco's Frank Gore to gain more than 100 yards on the ground.

The Eagles linebackers have to do a better job covering tight ends. So far, tight ends have burned them for 34 catches totaling 469 yards, an average of 13.8 yards a catch and 78 yards a game. Tight ends have accounted for one in three pass completions against the Eagles. The two that have hurt them the most are in their division - Jason Witten of Dallas (seven catches, 110 yards) and Chris Cooley of Washington (eight catches, 109 yards, 1 TD). Both factored significantly in the Cowboys and Redskins wins over the Eagles, who must face them again.

Speaking of tight ends, the Eagles must get more production - any production - out of L.J. Smith. Since catching five passes for 39 yards in the opener against St. Louis, Smith has caught only five balls for 38 yards in the four subsequent games in which he's played. He missed the Bears game with a back injury.

Smith, who has two TDs, has been employed primarily as a blocker, but the Eagles must expect more considering they tagged him as a franchise player in the off-season.

Rookie DeSean Jackson must continue to be Donovan McNabb's go-to receiver when Kevin Curtis and Reggie Brown return to the lineup, most likely next week against Atlanta. Curtis has yet to play because of hernia surgery. Brown sat out last week with a groin pull after catching 10 passes the previous two games. The return of Curtis and Brown will give the Eagles a solid, if not spectacular, corps of receivers, but it would be a mistake if Jackson doesn't remain the main option. He's the only game-breaker among the group.

David Akers needs to straighten out his field-goal attempts from beyond 40 yards.

The Eagles must learn how to win close games. They are 0-3 in games decided by six-or-fewer points and have lost eight of nine going back to last season.

The remainder of the Eagles schedule offers danger and opportunity. Four of their final 10 games are against the Giants (twice), Cowboys and Redskins. They play Washington on the road and Dallas at home the final two games of the season. All four will be difficult games, but they'll also give the Eagles chances to make up ground. If they win three of them, they'll still probably have to find four wins in the other six games to get to 10.

Atlanta and Arizona are improved, each with 4-2 records, but the Eagles play both of them at home. Road games include Seattle, which is 1-4, and Cincinnati, which is 0-6. Another road game is at Baltimore, which is 2-3 but has a stingy defense. Cleveland, which comes to Lincoln Financial Field on Dec. 15, has underachieved so far, but has an impressive win over the Giants.

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