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Week 14 Snap Judgments

Musings, observations and the occasional insight as we enjoy a Week 14 of frosty, see-your-breath NFL venues and games chock full of playoff-race implications ...

• It's December now, and all I keep thinking is they're doing it again. Watch those Philadelphia Eagles, football fans, because it's the time of year when they perennially go from left-for-dead to still a factor, almost without us noticing.

Two weeks ago, the Eagles were 5-5-1, in last place in the NFC East, and Donovan McNabb remained an object of derision for not knowing that every game didn't end in either a win or a loss. But after demolishing the Cardinals last week at home and upsetting the supposedly invincible Giants 20-14 Sunday at the Meadowlands, the Eagles are back again, hanging around and putting themselves into position to make a final-month move.

Get the feeling we've seen this movie before? Like in 2006, when the Eagles were collectively buried by one and all at 5-6, only to win their final five games and steal another division title when no one was looking. Or even to a lesser degree last season, when the debate over whether McNabb and coach Andy Reid deserved to come back for a 10th year was already at full throttle when the 5-8 Eagles quietly managed an impressive three-game December winning streak to change the tone of their season.

And keep this in mind: In each of the past two years, a 5-6 or 5-7 team has come out of the NFC East to make the playoffs. As we noted above, Philly was 5-6 in 2006, but won its last five. And last year, Washington overcame a 5-7 start to win four straight and earn a wild-card slot at 9-7. So while the Eagles may not have known it at the time, they were relatively ahead of the game at 5-5-1.

These Eagles, at 7-5-1, very much have a pulse in the NFC playoff race, and that ignominious 10-10 tie they suffered at Cincinnati in Week 11 could wind up being their saving grace. If Philadelphia can win-out in December -- which is not a far-fetched scenario at all --a 10-5-1 record might be enough to beat out both Dallas and Washington in the pursuit of the lone wild-card spot the NFC East likely will produce.

Even better, the Eagles might wind up controlling a good deal of their own fate. They have a winnable game at home next week against woeful Cleveland (4-9), then play at Washington and home against Dallas in the season's final two weeks. That would give them the opportunity to climb over the two teams they need to beat, and possibly set up a delicious winner-take-playoff-berth Week 17 showdown against the Cowboys at The Linc.

Not only could it happen, I'm beginning to think it will. With three weeks remaining, I like the position the Eagles are in better than I do the vantage points of either the Cowboys or Redskins.

Dallas, of course, might have to play its best just to make sure its regular-season finale means everything. The Cowboys (8-5) lost a heartbreaker to the Steelers on Sunday, and now face the Giants and Ravens at home in Weeks 15-16 before the Philly finale comes into focus. The Redskins (7-5) also have tough games in Sunday night at Baltimore and Week 16 at home against the Eagles. Earning an 11th win and beating out the Birds won't be an easy task for Jim Zorn's club.

If the Eagles do make it to the playoffs, it'll be yet another reminder that Reid's never-panic style is the right approach for the week-to-week volatility of the NFL and, in particular, the rough and ready NFC East. We've written Reid's club off prematurely before, and someday maybe we'll learn that Philly is nothing if not resilient. When December rolls around, the Eagles will be playing meaningful games. Once again, we're starting to question how we ever thought otherwise.

• I know it's going to be the easy (snap-judgment-like) postgame take, but put me down for not buying the Giants lost to Philly because they were distracted by the never-ending Plaxico Burress melodrama.

New York had played at an extremely high level of efficiency for all but one game this season and merely was due a clunker. And as noted, the Eagles are no slouches right now. In this year's NFC East, especially in December, anybody can beat anyone, anywhere.

So while I'm sure the Burress-as-distraction angle will get thrown liberally at Tom Coughlin's club in the hours ahead, New York's second loss had much, much more to do with a rare off game by Eli Manning, some stout Eagles run defense (the Giants ran for just 88 yards and had just three first downs on the ground) and a Philadelphia offense that controlled the ball for almost 35 minutes and converted 12 of 18 on third down.

The spin will be that dealing with the Burress saga all week wearied the Giants, in a way it couldn't possibly do before last week's win at Washington, which took place less than two days after Burress shot himself in the thigh. But that's just something to talk about, and assign blame to. Burress, I believe, had nothing to do with Sunday's outcome. The Giants didn't lose focus because of Plaxico's legal troubles. They just lost.

• It would appear that Brian Westbrook is healthy again. And thus, reports of his demise -- just like those of the Eagles' -- were greatly exaggerated.

Give Westbrook an inch of daylight, and he will run away from people. He did it twice on Sunday -- scoring touchdowns on a 30-yard run and a 40-yard reception -- and he also got all the tough yards, running a career-high 33 times for 131 yards, while adding six catches for 72 yards.

• The Jaguars have to be absolutely sick about giving quarterback David Garrard that $60 million, seven-year contract during the offseason. Garrard had that breakthrough season a year ago, but in 2008 he has played more like the career backup he was prior to '07.

Garrard was a shaky 19 of 38 for 178 yards, with a killer early interception in the Jaguars' 23-10 loss at Chicago. That makes it four consecutive losses for Jacksonville (4-9) and six out of seven.

In 13 games this season, Garrard has thrown 11 touchdowns and 10 interceptions, after having just three interceptions and 18 scoring passes a year ago. He's also up to 36 sacks this season, and his passer rating has slipped to 80.9.

• There might not have been a bigger win in relief for any quarterback in the league this year than the one Minnesota's Tarvaris Jackson turned in Sunday in Detroit.

Subbing for the injured Gus Frerotte, who left with a back injury at the end of the first half, Jackson was everything the Vikings could have hoped for: Efficient with the ball (8 of 10 passing, no turnovers) and clutch, hitting tight end Visanthe Shiancoe for the game-winning 11-yard touchdown pass with 11:22 remaining.

Welcome back to the fight, T.J. The Vikings absolutely had to have that eighth if their playoff dreams are to come true.

• The Lions have to be smelling it now. They're 0-13, and no way, no how they win at red-hot Indianapolis next week. The Colts have won six in a row and they'll put Detroit out of its misery early. Then the Lions have the high-scoring Saints in their 2008 regular-season home finale and a trip to frosty Lambeau looming in Week 17.

Somebody tell the 1976 Bucs to move over. They're about to get replaced in ignominy.

• Just wondering, but why would the good people of Toronto even want the bedraggled Bills about now? Canada to Western New York: "No, thanks, Buffalo. You can keep 'em.''

• Just a hunch, but I don't think J.P. Losman is going to have anyone knocking down his doors when he hits free agency in March. The Bills backup quarterback hasn't done anything to change the script with his late-season playing opportunity in relief of the injured Trent Edwards.

• Frauds. The Jets are frauds. After winning at New England and Tennessee in Weeks 11-12, me and every other NFL pundit were preparing everyone for a New York, New York Super Bowl. But after losses at home to Denver and at San Francisco, these Jets seem like they can't stand prosperity.

The Jets are now 0-2 this season when they play in the Bay Area (losing at Oakland in Week 7), and 8-3 everywhere else.

• Stop messing with the likes of Alex Smith and J.T. O'Sullivan, San Francisco. If the 49ers are paying attention, they'll notice they've found their quarterback. His name is Shaun Hill, and he's 5-2 as their starter over the past two seasons.

• What a monster Roddy White has become for Atlanta. His season-high 10 catches for 164 yards didn't help produce the Falcons' ninth win at New Orleans, but he is proving that there was nothing fluky about his 83-catch, 1,202-yard season of 2007. White already has a career-best 1,249 receiving yards this season, and with 78 receptions already bagged and three games remaining, he'll soon top last year in that department, too.

• If the Saints career of Deuce McAllister should end after this season, the New Orleans running game looks to be in fairly decent hands with the combination of Pierre Thomas and Reggie Bush. The pair combined for 28 carries for 182 yards against the Falcons, and that'll get it done.

• Fairly big game of desperate 7-6 teams scheduled for Thursday night in sure-to-be-windy-and-cold Solider Field: Saints at Bears. For obvious reasons, just typing the name of those two teams reminds me of Mike Ditka.

• Twelve consecutive quarters now for the Browns without a touchdown. And to think we still have one more primetime appearance to look forward to from Cleveland, next Monday night at Philadelphia.

• I'm more convinced than ever that Indy is headed for a 12-4 finish and keeping its streak of 12-win seasons alive -- a remarkable accomplishment given the Colts stumbling 3-4 start. And the best news of all for Indianapolis on Sunday against Cincinnati was that its pass rush produced five sacks, a combined four by defensive ends Robert Mathis (2½) and Dwight Freeney (1½).

• Four quarterbacks played in the Vikings-Lions game: Frerotte, Jackson, and Detroit's Daunte Culpepper and Drew Henson. What do they have in common? All four, at one point, belonged to Minnesota.

• It may be time to blow up that Packers defense and start over. Houston totaled 549 yards in its 24-21 win at Green Bay, with quarterback Matt Schaub throwing for 414 yards and two touchdowns in his return to the lineup.

The defense has been the team's Achilles' heel all season, but that's as low as things have gotten all year in Green Bay.

• With a three-game winning streak when he needed it most, the Texans' Gary Kubiak, I do believe, has coached his way nearly off the hot seat in Houston. At 6-7, with the Texans having a winnable game at Oakland in Week 16, Kubiak's job is likely safe for 2008.

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