The scariest thing about the Philadelphia Eagles isn't the rejuvenated play of quarterback Donovan McNabb or the game-breaking potential of running back Brian Westbrook. It's also not the commitment to a more balanced offense that coach Andy Reid has shown in recent weeks. Instead, it's the inspired play of a defense that is hitting its stride at the best possible time.
As Eagles safety Brian Dawkins said during a recent press conference, "I don't know how long it took or if other guys can tell you that, but I do know that we all our understand our roles. We're playing this kind of football because everybody knows their responsibilities."
It's becoming quite obvious that these Eagles have a chance to make a Super Bowl run because of that defensive chemistry. After all, the last three Super Bowl champions -- the New York Giants, Indianapolis Colts and Pittsburgh Steelers -- all walked off with a Lombardi Trophy largely because their respective defenses dominated in the postseason. Now, the Eagles have the same potential to storm through the playoffs with a defense that ranked third in the NFL in fewest yards allowed (274.3 per game) and fourth in fewest points (18.1). As much as people rave about the defenses in Pittsburgh, Baltimore and Tennessee, these Eagles are just as tough on that side of the football.
Take this past weekend, for example. Philadelphia harassed Minnesota Vikings quarterback Tarvaris Jackson and controlled Pro Bowl running back Adrian Peterson during a 26-14 NFC wild-card playoff victory, with a 44-yard interception
return for a touchdown by Pro Bowl cornerback Asante Samuel being a critical highlight. A week before that, they had a 73-yard fumble return for a touchdown (by defensive end Chris Clemons) and a 96-yard fumble return for a touchdown (defensive back Joselio Hanson) in the 44-6 butt-whipping they laid on the Dallas Cowboys. Overall, the Eagles have four defensive touchdowns in their past five games. They've also allowed just 54 points during that time.
It's that kind of production that makes them so dangerous as they head into Sunday's NFC divisional playoff game against the Giants.
"If this isn't the best defense that I've played on, it's definitely in the top two," said Dawkins, who has played 13 seasons in Philadelphia. "Just the speed with which guys play, it's the best run-stopping defense by far. And that alone allows the rest of the defense to flow. When we stop the run and get the other team in third-and-long, this is definitely a defense that can cause some havoc."
The best part about Philadelphia's defense is that it's also a unit that has grown up together this season. Remember, the offseason signing of Samuel created an awkward situation in the secondary, particularly because the Eagles already had an unhappy starter, Lito Sheppard, who openly wanted to leave town. The Eagles also signed the speedy Clemons to energize a pass rush, and there were high hopes that young players like middle linebacker Stewart Bradley would take the next step in their development. In other words, there were a few unknowns with this bunch.
Now we can see the complete vision that defensive coordinator Jim Johnson had for this defense. He has defensive tackles like Mike Patterson and Brodrick Bunkley who consistently stuff the run inside. He has pass-rushers like Clemons and fellow defensive end Darren Howard coming off the edges when he's not unleashing the multitude of blitzes that have become Johnson's trademark. Bradley also has grown into a stronger leader over the course of the season.
But the real strength of this unit is in the secondary. Samuel has been the ball hawk the Eagles had hoped he'd be when he left New England, and fellow cornerback Sheldon Brown has been just as valuable on the other side. Then there's Dawkins, a player who heard plenty of whispers about his declining play, especially now that he's 35. He wound up making his seventh Pro Bowl, and he's convinced that he's seeing the game better than ever.
There was a time when that secondary had to learn how to communicate and trust that each person would be in the right spot. Now, according to Dawkins, there is so much of a connection between the group that most quarterbacks are going to struggle to complete passes against them. So what does all this mean? Simply put, the Eagles are capable of pulling off the biggest upset of the week on Sunday.
For one thing, they aren't going to be intimidated by a Giants team that they play twice each year. They also know they've had recent success against New York. After the Giants gained 401 yards and controlled the ball for 39-plus minutes in a 36-31 win over Philadelphia on Nov. 9, the Eagles responded with a 20-14 victory four weeks later. The Giants managed just 211 yards in that second contest, which was played at Giants Stadium.
So you can safely assume the Eagles are thinking they can pull the same feat when they return to New York this weekend. Their defense already knows it has that kind of momentum rolling.
"We're never going to play the perfect game, but our percentages of mistakes are low," Dawkins said. "That's a good thing for this defense. It means we're not going to give you a lot of clear areas to get into. And the likelihood of driving down the field against this defense, without making a mistake, is low."
The possibility of offenses' overwhelming the Eagles is so unlikely these days that Philadelphia should be a major concern for every other NFC team still alive. When this postseason started, the Giants and the Carolina Panthers were the clear favorites in what appeared to be a two-horse race in that conference. Today, there's a third team running neck and neck with them. And with a defense like Philadelphia has, the Eagles just might win out.
Senior writer Jeffri Chadiha covers the NFL for ESPN.com.