Eagles are back in the NFC race

PHILADELPHIA -- Donovan McNabb doesn't want to hear about the numbers. He doesn't want to be reminded that the Eagles' passing game is ranked 30th in the league -- that he is the NFL's highest-paid player, but his quarterback rating (63.5) is second from the bottom among NFC starters.

He shrugs. He smirks. He digs deep into the psychology of defiance. And then he looks you straight in the eye, and says:

"I'm not really worried about it. You know, because the end result of the whole deal is, what's our record? Do we have an opportunity to win the NFC East? And, after that, who are we playing in the playoffs?"

Playoffs? Yup, you heard McNabb right. After starting a miserable 0-2, losing both of those games at home and scoring a measly 10 points in the process, the Eagles (6-3) have made a mockery of their critics and climbed back into the thick of the playoff hunt. In Sunday's game at Lincoln Financial Field, Philadelphia could effectively douse any hope the New York Giants (4-5) had of winning the NFC East.

But, unlike the last two seasons of dominance that landed them back-to-back appearances in the NFC championship game, this year the Eagles have been living dangerously, living on the edge, providing themselves with a nearly imperceptible margin of error.

With a comeback 17-14 win in Green Bay on Monday night, the Eagles became just the fourth team in NFL history to win four straight games in which they trailed by three points or more in the second half.

"You don't like going down to the last second," said Pro Bowl cornerback Troy Vincent. "You don't like winning on the last drive, but you take 'em the way they come. It shows character. It shows resilience."

Maybe a little luck, too. How else do you explain the fact that the Eagles, the only NFL team that started the season 0-2 to now have a winning record, are the only team with a winning record and a scoring deficit -- 159 points scored, 166 surrendered?

The Eagles' offense has been out-gained by nearly 40 yards per game. And McNabb is the only starting quarterback on a winning team who has thrown more interceptions (7) than touchdown passes (5).

"That's been our attitude since the beginning," said McNabb, who was bothered earlier in the year by a sprained thumb on his right (throwing) hand. "Although we haven't been putting up 30 or 40 points a game, we've been in a position to win games, and we've been able to bring it home."

McNabb, who has been sacked a league-high 29 times, was asked if there were any personal stats he covets. He didn't hesitate.

"Wins," he said.

"It's all about winning, although people look at football players as being the king of stats. It would be great to pass for 4,000 yards," he added. "It would be great to throw 50 touchdowns. But if you don't win the Super Bowl, no one really cares. You make plays and do whatever you can to get to the promised land. And right now the promised land is in Houston, Texas."

McNabb calls it a "culture of winning." Under head coach Andy Reid, the Eagles just expect to win, he said, especially at this time of the year.

Since the 2000 season, the Eagles have the best overall record in November and December, 22-5, a gaudy winning percentage of .815. And they're doing it the hard way. Philadelphia has the best overall record on the road in November and December, too -- 13-2 (.867 winning percentage).

But the Eagles have been bitterly disappointed in the last two NFC championship games, especially last year, when they were the NFC's top seed, hosted the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in the title game and lost, closing down Veterans Stadium with a whimper.

To come back from that and then two embarrassing losses to open their new stadium, Lincoln Financial Field, has been remarkable as much as it has been unexpected -- especially in a town that can be so unforgiving.

Indeed, in Philadelphia, where the fans stretch the limits of Kierkegaard's existential paradox between awe and dread, McNabb has been getting Mike Schmidt treatment -- you're good, but what have you done for me lately?

But now that McNabb has won six of his last seven starts, it's clear he doesn't want to hear anymore about the team's poor start, about his sore thumb, about his earlier ineffectiveness. His teammates can hear the impatience, the defiance in the tone of his voice.

"And rightfully so," said Vincent. "He's taken a beating the first half of the season by critics and by fans and by so-called supporters of the team."

All-Pro safety Brian Dawkins, who practiced Wednesday for the first time in two months and is expected to play against the Giants on Sunday, said, "You can only take so much as a person, let alone a player who is competitive -- to be talked about a certain way so much, so many weeks in a row."

"He's only human," added defensive end N.D. Kalu. "He didn't show it here in the locker room, but if you sit and think about the things that were said, I'm sure he went home and it bothered him."

Don't forget, earlier this season, McNabb was caught up in a national maelstrom over the suggestion by Rush Limbaugh on Sunday NFL Countdown that McNabb was being overrated by the media because he's African-American. Then came the suggestions from some national analysts that McNabb's confidence was shot, that he should be benched -- at least for a while -- to get his bearings.

In the face of such withering second-guessing and criticism, neither McNabb nor Reid flinched. That rock-steady belief has been the magic ingredient in keeping team chemistry intact.

"We've always had great chemistry on this team," said Vincent. "We don't get down on each other. We don't point fingers. We just had a belief that we'd be back in the middle of it."

Back on top of the NFC, if you believe the New York Times computer ranking, which came out Thursday. The top four teams in the ranking are from the AFC -- the Chiefs, the Titans, the Patriots and the Colts. At No. 5 is the Eagles, the top-rated NFC team, according to the ranking, which is based on an analysis of each team's scores with an emphasis on who won, by what margin and the quality of the opposition.

The next three teams in the rankings are the Rams, the Cowboys and the Panthers -- three teams with quarterbacks completely inexperienced in postseason play, Marc Bulger, Quincy Carter and Jake Delhomme. Which begs the following question -- down the stretch and in the playoffs, which quarterback is likely to be favored in the sweepstakes for the NFC championship?

Has to be McNabb. But he knows he must play better, that he can't continue to leave points on the field and miss opportunities like he did against Green Bay. Eventually, his luck will run out.

"If we're going to continue to win, it doesn't matter," he said. "You just can't keep doing it. Like I said, there were opportunities to make plays throughout the course of that game where we have to make them. We just didn't make them consistently in that game. I question myself. I go back and try to watch the film, learn from it and go into the next game trying to change it. If we're in that position, we have the experience knowing what we have to do to win the game. I think that works in our favor. But we want to stay away from that if we can."

But McNabb insisted he is not interested in improving his numbers -- if he can finally get his team to Houston on Feb. 1.

"Everyone talks about when Dan Marino threw for the record-setting yards and touchdowns," McNabb said. "But what's the last thing they say? He didn't win the Super Bowl. ... If you asked Dan, I'm sure he would want to trade all that in to win that Super Bowl when he was there. It's pretty much about wins and losses. That's what the NFL is about.

"Let's take a look at Baltimore," McNabb added. "Trent Dilfer didn't have the greatest stats when they won it. ... If you don't win, then nobody cares. That's what it comes down to."

Did McNabb just say he would rather be Trent Dilfer than Dan Marino? He may be taking this act of defiance a little too far.

Sal Paolantonio, who covers the NFL for ESPN, wrote about the Eagles for the Philadelphia Inquirer from 1993-94.