Eagles on the verge of doing the impossible

The schedule, including a three-game, December division road trip, plus the loss of Donovan McNabb was supposed to keep Philly out of the playoff mix. It hasn't, writes Michael Smith.

Updated: December 24, 2006, 1:04 PM ET
By Michael Smith | ESPN.com

Whenever someone looked at the Philadelphia Eagles' schedule, the Week 14 to Week 16 stretch in particular, the likely reaction can be summarized in a single word:

Wow.

Dec. 10: at Washington. Dec. 17: at New York. Dec. 25: at Dallas. No team since the Giants in the '82 strike-shortened season had played road division games three consecutive weekends in December or January. For the record, the Giants went 1-2 on their three-game division road trip. It's cruel and almost unfair to expect a team to win three such games in a row.

But that's what the soaring Eagles, who have won three in a row overall, are on the verge of doing. Two weeks ago, they held off the Redskins and won by two at FedEx Field. They beat New York by by 14 at Giants Stadium last Sunday. With a win Monday night they can sweep the season series with the Cowboys, clinch a playoff berth and sweep as difficult a road trip as has ever been planned.

Brian Westbrook
Hunter Martin/WireImage.comBrian Westbrook and the Eagles can clinch a playoff berth with a win at Dallas.
The only thing in the NFL harder than winning a road game is winning a road game against a team you play twice a season. Division games are difficult regardless of the record. If Philadelphia were to do it three straight weeks, this time of year, against two postseason contenders and a Redskins club that's better than its record -- that would be perhaps as impressive an accomplishment for a team as we've ever seen.

Not quite the Steelers winning three road playoff games and the Super Bowl as a sixth seed, but pretty darn close.

"We've been able to come up with some big plays at the right time at this time of the year," said safety Brian Dawkins, who had 16 tackles, two forced fumbles, and an interception last week against the Giants. "Sometimes, this time of the year, that pressure reveals things about a person and a team. Some teams in this pressure situation, they kind of self destruct, where[as] we found it inside of ourselves to make the big plays and come up with the play -- whether it is an interception, a caused fumble or the scramble for touchdowns. We've been able to come up with those things nine times out of 10."

The Eagles (8-6) even being here seemed like such a long shot after 45-21 trampling at Indianapolis on Nov. 26. That was three days after Thanksgiving. But they managed to turn their season around, starting with a three-point win over the Panthers six days after the Colts loss. That victory got them to 6-6 (along with what seemed like every team in the conference) and kept hope alive. The Washington win kept the momentum going. And last Sunday Philadelphia took the lead in the wild-card derby and remained in the hunt for the NFC East title, which the Eagles would win should they beat Dallas and Atlanta at home in the regular-season finale.

Philadelphia is a great story. But let's get ahead of ourselves for a moment. What if the Eagles are to take care of business and finish the job against the Cowboys? What would we think of them then?

Here's what: Contender. If they can pull this off, then where can't the Eagles win? We'd seriously have to look at the Eagles as a legitimate threat to win the NFC, no? We're talking about a conference with no clear favorite. If Philadelphia can go 3-0 on a three-game division road trip, it's easy to think they could find a way to win a couple of road playoff games.

Maybe Jeff Garcia isn't the picture of the perfect playoff quarterback and, sure, the Eagles have their issues on defense. But if the Eagles were to keep it going and end the season on a five-game winning streak, they'd be hot and playing good football at the right time. That's more important in the playoffs than talent or home-field advantage. Looking ahead even further, it would be an amazing ending to the story if the Eagles were make a playoff run without Donovan McNabb and in the first year of life after T.O.

But first things first: the team presently living with the T.O. headache. A one-game-at-a-time mentality has enabled the Eagles to survive what has been a daunting task. And to think, the Eagles went winless in the division last year and collapsed in their first NFC East game this season, against the Giants. Otherwise they could have been 5-0 heading into the division finale against Dallas a year after going 0-6.

The Eagles' season can be divided into three acts. In Act I they got out of the gates 4-1, the only loss coming when New York came back to win in overtime. Philadelphia exercised the T.O. demon with a 38-24 win Oct. 8 in the game of the year to that point. It seems like it's been ages since that game.

That's because in Act II Philly lost five of six games, including heartbreakers at New Orleans and at Tampa Bay, and lost their their MVP-caliber quarterback along the way. At that point the Eagles seemingly had as much of a chance of making the playoffs as they would to win three road division games in as many weeks.

But behind Garcia's fiery leadership, newfound balance on offense with Marty Mornhinweg calling the plays, and improved play by Jim Johnson's defense, Philly is 3-0 in Act III.

"When you see the hard work you're putting in paying off, that helps more than anything," middle linebacker Jeremiah Trotter said. "For a while there we were putting in all the hard work and it wasn't paying off. I found myself in a tough leadership position where what I knew had worked my whole career wasn't working. We just stayed with it, kept fighting and we got a few wins together and hopefully we can go into Dallas, a tough place to place, and get a win."

Garcia was the perfect replacement for McNabb. He not only knows the West Coast offense but thrived in San Francisco with Mornhinweg as the offensive coordinator. Garcia isn't your typical backup. He's led playoff teams and commands more respect from his teammates as a backup than most starters in the league. He brings the same confidence and almost as much playmaking ability to the Eagles' offense as McNabb.

The Eagles are a classic case of a team rallying around its quarterback situation. The gold standard is the 2001 Patriots, all of whom, not just the QB, stepped up their games when Tom Brady replaced Drew Bledsoe two games into the season.

"When you lose a guy that is a potential MVP of the National Football League, it's hard to fill those shoes," head coach Andy Reid said. "Jeff has done a great job, but I think that everybody around Jeff has also picked their game up, on the offensive side and on the defensive side and guys on special teams and coaches. I thought that was an important thing that players did, to this day, they've picked up the slack a little bit."

Another road win and the Eagles have a chance to change the way a lot of people look at them. Even if they were to lose to Dallas and rebound against Atlanta, winning four of their last five, that's a strong finish. Stay on this roll, though, and they could be dangerous in the postseason, with added confidence coming from knowing that they can win anywhere.

Michael Smith is a senior writer for ESPN.com.

Michael Smith

NFL Senior Writer
Michael Smith joined ESPN in July 2004 as a National Football League senior writer for ESPN.com, covering league news and major events such as the NFL Draft, NFL Playoffs and the Super Bowl, and continues to write breaking news stories. He is also a correspondent for E:60, ESPN's first multi-themed prime-time newsmagazine program, which debuted October 2007.