Samuel clemency?

FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- Philadelphia Eagles cornerback Nnamdi Asomugha was on a conference call with the New England media this week -- one that old friend Asante Samuel punted on being a part of, in advance of his first regular-season meeting with his old team Sunday -- when the former Patriots cornerback came up.

Asomugha chuckled as a voice in the background -- maybe even belonging to Samuel -- could be heard interjecting.

"He's a funny guy," Asomugha said. " I don't know how he was when he was over there with you guys, but here he's just been loud and the guy that's always running around yelling something or doing something where everyone is watching him and stuff like that. It's fun being around him."

Oh, to be sure, there were fun times for Samuel in New England. His final year with the Patriots might have been his finest, as he earned the first of what has become four consecutive Pro Bowl honors and aided New England in putting together a 16-0 regular-season record.

But things didn't end so well. The last (and lasting) image most Patriots fans have of the ball-hawking Samuel is a potential interception clanging off his hands with little more than a minute to play in Super Bowl XLII against the New York Giants. You know how that ended.

When free agency opened less than a month later, Samuel was gone, racing off like he had just snared an interception after signing a six-year, $57 million pact to join the Eagles. He took his two Super Bowl rings and his 22 jersey number's worth of regular-season interceptions with him, and never quite looked back.

Yes, the two sides crossed paths in the 2008 preseason, but this is the first regular-season meeting in the nearly four years that have passed. When the Patriots watch film of 30-year-old Samuel with his new team, they see one thing: the same old Asante.

"He looks like we've seen him for many years," Patriots coach Bill Belichick said. "I think we know you have to be careful throwing around him because he's very instinctive, he's got good ball skills, he's got good quickness. You just have to be careful. [Patriots quarterback] Tom [Brady] has thrown against him hundreds of times. I think he has a good feel for what it's like to play against him."

There's little doubt of that. Both Brady and Samuel brought up their practice battles this week, with Samuel suggesting that he got the better of some of those battles.

"I'd see him get red in the face and the neck when I was getting the best of him in practice," Samuel told reporters in Philadelphia. "He's a die-hard competitor, a true soldier, true warrior, a lot of heart. You love to play with a guy like that. We had some great competitions in practice."

Said Brady: "He makes a lot of plays and he always has made a lot of plays. He's a great player and I loved playing against him because I thought he really brought the best out in our receivers and our passing game. He's always a threat to intercept the ball. As a quarterback, you're always paying attention to those guys. He does it as well as anybody that I've ever played against."

Both sides have endured their bumps since the split. The Patriots haven't won a playoff game since Samuel's departure, while his own streak of being in the playoffs every season since he came into the league is in jeopardy, with the Eagles sitting at 4-6 entering Sunday's game.

What's more, Samuel sounded off against Philadelphia brass earlier this season when he suggested the team was shopping him at the trading deadline after the Eagles acquired cornerbacks Asomugha and Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie in July.

"When they traded for Dominique, I was happy. When they signed Nnamdi, [I] definitely was happy," Samuel said in October. "But when they made the call to me and said they were trying to trade me, that's when it went bad. I know it's not a rumor. I know it's a fact. They called me. They called me and my agent. Talked to both of us."

Things have calmed down a bit since then, and Samuel made sure to stress that he has no problem with coach Andy Reid, who offered high praise this week.

"He obviously likes to play the game and he's very good at it -- all the interceptions in his career," Reid said. "Our team here, he brought very good energy and we enjoy having him. He loves the game."

With both Asomugha (knee) and Rodgers-Cromartie (ankle) listed as questionable on the injury report this week, Samuel figures to play a large role in a must-win game for the Eagles.

As for the Patriots, their pass defense ranks 32nd in the league in yards allowed, and some might suggest the Patriots miss Samuel. Indeed, New England has been on the decline in defending the pass since his departure. After ranking sixth in the league in 2007 (190.1 yards per game), the Patriots finished 11th in 2008 (201.4 yards per game), 12th in 2009 (209.7), 30th in 2010 (258.5), and are now on pace to allow the most passing yardage in NFL history this season.

And, to be sure, the Patriots have struggled to find a consistent top-tier corner since Samuel left town. Ellis Hobbs and Deltha O'Neal were the primary starters in 2008 and combined for just six interceptions. Leigh Bodden shined in 2009 (team-high five interceptions), but things went downhill quickly. Devin McCourty earned a Pro Bowl nod last season while registering seven interceptions in a stellar rookie campaign, but he's battled a bit of a sophomore slump (as well as injuries, lately) this season.

The Patriots couldn't quite find a playmaker in the draft despite using some high picks in the immediate aftermath of Samuel's departure, including Darius Butler (second round, 41st overall, in 2009) Terrence Wheatley (second round, 62nd overall, in 2008), and Jonathan Wilhite (fourth round, 129th overall, in 2008). There's hope from New England that McCourty (first round, 27th overall, in 2010) and Ras-I Dowling (second round, 33rd overall, in 2011) will evolve into a top corner tandem.

But despite all the struggles defending the pass in the post-Samuel era, the Patriots remain in the upper third of the league in points allowed per game, suggesting they've gotten along just fine without him. After finishing fourth in the league in 2007 (17.1 points per game), New England has ranked eighth in 2008 (19.3), fifth in 2009 (17.8), eighth in 2010 (19.6), and 10th so far in 2011 (20.3).

Ironically, the Patriots' top healthy cornerback right now is Kyle Arrington, who signed with the Eagles as an undrafted free agent in 2008, only to be cut before the start of the regular season thanks to a deep depth chart topped by Samuel.

Acquaintances will be renewed Sunday and both secondaries will be in the spotlight. And as Asomugha suggested of Samuel, it ought to be a lot of fun to watch.

Chris Forsberg covers the Patriots for ESPNBoston.com.