PHILADELPHIA -- Things to do in Philadelphia while waiting for the NFC Championship Game:
Wander around the mall while your significant other maxes out the credit cards. Check.
Book a hotel room in Jacksonville (but don't send the deposit in just yet). Check.
Make an appointment with therapist for Monday morning, Jan. 24 -- just in case. Check.
It is seven weeks until the NFC Championship Game on Jan. 23, and the Eagles proved on Sunday by throttling the Green Bay Packers 47-17 that they are the class of a weak NFC. And, it seems, at least, that their ticket is all but punched for a fourth straight trip to the conference title game.
For Eagles fans, now comes the hard part -- waiting and wondering and worrying. Is this the year they finally advance to the Super Bowl for the first time in 24 seasons? Will this town be in for a seismic celebration or another cataclysmic disappointment -- to wit, a fourth straight loss in the NFC Championship Game?
Fair or not, this is the all-or-nothing fate facing the team and the town. On Jan. 23, the Eagles will decide whether the 2004 season is a spectacular success or another bitter failure.
Clinching the division? Big deal. It's happened four years in a row. Earn home-field advantage throughout the postseason. Been there, done that. Got to go to Jacksonville. Otherwise, it's another dismal journey through the special Philadelphia purgatory known as another dismal Phillies baseball season.
Despite the Eagles' recent history, there has been an outrageous level of giddiness around Philadelphia, prompting my former colleague at the Philadelphia Inquirer (and current colleague at ESPN), Stephen A. Smith, to issue the following warning in Tuesday morning's newspaper:
"It's time for all of us to do the impossible: Manage our expectations, and be quiet while doing it. This sudden praise that's been heaped upon the Eagles is ridiculous? There's a remedy to this madness that's been festering throughout this city: Calm."
That's what head coach Andy Reid has been trying to preach, even after Sunday's blowout, when the Eagles Director of Football Media Services and Reid's constant sidekick, Derek Boyko, told him that the Redskins, the Eagles next opponent, were hammering the New York Giants.
"Well, Derek showed me the Washington score," Reid said. "That's enough to get your attention. They played pretty good. Cincinnati had a nice win. It's going to be competitive all the way through and we know that."
Yes, a visit to Washington is coming up on Sunday night on ESPN. And Cincinnati shocked the Ravens and visit Lincoln Financial Field on the last day of the season. But, c'mon, the Redskins? The Bengals? You expect this town to get excited about those two teams after the Eagles defense made Brett Favre look like Peyton Manning's little brother, who looked like Peyton Manning's little brother two weeks ago when the Eagles pounded the Giants?
Reid is serious. Washington's defense, ranked near the top in the league in nearly every category, will no doubt put up a more difficult fight than Green Bay's, which allowed McNabb to throw a career-high five touchdown passes in the first half on Sunday. But against defenses ranked in the top half of the league this year, McNabb is 4-1, losing to Pittsburgh, but beating Dallas, Baltimore, the Giants, and, yes, Washington.
On Nov. 21, the Eagles struggled in the first half against the Redskins defense. McNabb was sacked four times in the game. But eventually, MacFive threw four touchdown passes and the Eagles dropped 28 points on the 'Skins. The only other team to drop a 28-spot on the Redskins? The Packers.
Still, Reid is trying desperately not to get swept away by the euphoria.
"Washington was very disruptive against the Giants," Reid said on Monday. "I thought they played a good football game. I had a chance to look at it this morning and they're playing good football, so that gets your attention right away. I think it's important that we stay focused on some goals that we have at this particular time. You talk about home-field advantage, you talk about a bye week, well, those are important things. I bank on our leadership in the locker room. We have some guys that had the opportunity to have home-field advantage and they understand the importance of that."
At 11-1, Reid says his team understands what happened in that one loss. The Steelers embarrassed them like they embarrassed the Packers. And that sent off alarms, forcing Reid to make changes to shore up the run defense. Nate Wayne was benched at weak-side linebacker. Mike linebacker Mark Simoneau replaced him. And Jeremiah Trotter was back in the middle.
Reid knows that any weakness must be addressed. Unlike past years, problems will not be allowed to fester so that they can come back as an open wound in the postseason.
"We all understand that we got our tail kicked [in Pittsburgh]," said Reid. "That happens in this business and it's important how you rebound. You bank on people, especially sitting as head coach, you bank on your veteran players and you bank on your coaches. Those guys were all upbeat and ready to go. They weren't going to let the young guys hang their head down and that was a great sign from the seat that I sit in."
And, there is another thing keeping this group sharp: history. Three straight losses in the NFC Championship Game will get your attention.
But who is going to come into Philadelphia and beat the Eagles on Jan. 23? The Falcons? They are 9-3, but Atlanta has scored 10 points less than it has given up. The Packers? Puhleeeze. Not after Sunday's performance. Eagles defensive coordinator Jim Johnson owns Favre.
Still, the Bucs and Panthers were never supposed to come into Philly and beat the Eagles in the big game. So, it's back to the city's No. 1 preoccupation: Things to do in Philadelphia while waiting for the NFC Championship Game:
Leave a message on Reid's voicemail that he's got to do a better job of resting and protecting the fragile Brian Westbrook. Check.
Pray that Terrell Owens catches his 15th touchdown pass so that Reid has to pay off a bet -- wearing tights. Check.
Sal Paolantonio, who wrote about the Eagles for the Philadelphia Inquirer from 1993-4, covers the NFL for ESPN.