LANDOVER, Md. -- You didn't have to watch every play of every Philadelphia Eagles game for the past month to spot the difference in the team that took the field here against the Washington Redskins on Sunday. It was simple and obvious to everyone.
"They came in here with their season on the line," Redskins receiver Donte' Stallworth said. "And they played like it."
The Eagles made tackles. They made smart decisions. They stayed away from turnovers. They looked nothing at all like the team that gave away the game to the San Francisco 49ers two weeks earlier, or the one that didn't show up against the Buffalo Bills last week. And as a result of all of that, they beat the Redskins 20-13. So they go into their bye week with a 2-4 record and a one-game winning streak instead of a 1-5 record and a five-game losing streak, and for the first time since early September they have reason to feel good about themselves.
And that's where they have to be careful.
"That's one thing we can't lose, that sense of urgency we had here today," defensive tackle Cullen Jenkins said. "Going into the bye now, we have a chance to get healthy, a chance to relax a little bit. But we have to make sure we still have that sense of urgency and keep up that fight."
This is the most critical thing for the Eagles in the wake of this victory that saved their season: that they don't start feeling too good about themselves. This team has to come out against the Dallas Cowboys two weeks from now as though it's 2-4 and still working to get back into contention -- not as though it just played its best all-around game of the season. The avalanche of humility thumping the Eagles on the head for the past four weeks can turn out to be a good thing for them, as long as they recognize its value. We have seen proof, several times already this season, that the Eagles are very good when their great players play great. What we haven't seen much of is those players actually playing great.
So the Eagles team that rolled in here Sunday was a humbled Eagles team. And as poorly prepared as they'd looked the week before, Sunday's Eagles looked like they'd been working, coaching and practicing their tails off ever since. Defensive coordinator Juan Castillo was adamant last week that the defense played better in the second half and had something on which to build. He was right, but the key of course was that they did that building.
"Through that whole second half [in Buffalo], all the talk on our sideline was, 'Can you feel the energy? Can you feel the momentum?'" Castillo said. "Every week, we keep preaching that if you work hard, good things happen. And our guys were working hard, but those good things weren't happening in the games. These are proud athletes, and they've been working."
Sunday, it finally paid off. The Eagles finally played like hard workers instead of anointed stars. They were tough, physical, mean and determined. Michael Vick managed the game well. LeSean McCoy ran like an unstoppable jigsaw. Kurt Coleman, getting a second chance at safety, came up with three interceptions.
The Eagles played like a bunch of guys who feared what would happen if they didn't do their jobs well. That had been missing through the first five weeks, and that's the main reason Andy Reid and his coaching staff deserved so much of the criticism they were taking. The team that showed up last week in Buffalo had been poorly coached and prepared for that game. The team that showed up here Sunday looked far better honed.
Maybe it has been a process all along, and it just took this long for them to look the way we expected them to look. Or maybe something happened to shock them into realizing what was at stake if they laid another egg. Maybe this performance was a reaction to a week that featured players-only meetings, players asking fans to take down critical signs across from the team's practice facility, and a relentless storm of all-angles criticism of Reid.
"We love our coach, and we'll go to bat for him each and every week," Vick said. "We could be 1-13, and whatever he's telling us, we're going to go out and do it."
This was the first week in a long time in which that appeared obviously the case. And maybe it was because some of the heat Reid was feeling was naturally trickling into the locker room and helping wake the players up to what was at stake.
Whatever happened to the Eagles last week -- whether it was the meeting or an epiphany or just the natural effect of passing time on a team that had yet to jell -- they'd be wise to bottle some of that and bring it back out next week when they have to start preparing for their next game. They are but two games out of first place in spite of it all, and on Sunday they finally looked like a team that understands its situation.
"Right now, we should be in a better position," Vick said. "I think we all know that."
The more important thing for them to know is that they're not, and that they have to keep playing like a team that's working to dig itself out of a hole. Because that's the Eagles team we saw Sunday, and it's the best they have looked all year.