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Michael Wilbon

Going Up Against The Main Attraction

By Michael Wilbon
Monday, December 13, 2004; Page D01

It would have been a nice trophy for the Redskins to look at in the offseason, a victory over the future NFC champion Philadelphia Eagles. It would have nice for them to brag about beating the Eagles this year, just as they beat the Super Bowl champ Patriots last year. But the Eagles are on a mission now, and whether T.O. winds up dancing in the end zone or Brian Dawkins intercepts a Redskins pass in the end zone, it matters not when you're 12-1.

The Redskins played fairly true to form, which wasn't good enough to score the biggest upset in the NFL this season. The defense put them in a position to win; the offense couldn't finish. It's a fairly recognizable pattern after 13 games. It's one thing to play even with the Eagles; it's another to beat them. The Redskins played about as well as they have all season. Meantime, the Eagles struggled and enjoyed the tension of a tough game afterward.

Redskins cornerback Shawn Springs is called for pass interference on Eagles' Terrell Owens (6 catches, 46 yards) in the first quarter. (Toni L. Sandys -- The Washington Post)

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"Every game is going to be like this the rest of the way," Terrell Owens said. "This is a character builder for our team."

The Eagles are the top attraction in the NFL this season, ahead of the Steelers, who are all substance and no style, ahead of the Patriots, who other than golden boy quarterback Tom Brady are about as gray as the sweatshirts their hobo-looking coach wears on the sideline. The Steelers and Patriots play almost completely without volume, while the Eagles have made a spectacle of themselves from the first day of summer camp.

There's been Owens suckering Coach Andy Reid into a bet that's going to end up with T.O. scoring more than 15 touchdowns and 350-pound Reid having to wear custom-made black tights to practice one day soon. There's been T.O. mocking Ray Lewis during a game with the Ravens, T.O.'s clever yet naughty "Monday Night Football" opening scene with saucy Nicollette Sheridan of "Desperate Housewives". There's been T.O. stalking McNabb up and down the sideline the one game the Eagles wound up losing.

The Eagles have plenty of lightning to go with the thunder. Brian Westbrook has emerged as a runner-receiver in the mold of the old 49ers great, Roger Craig. T.O., in hooking up with McNabb, has shown why he didn't want to go to Baltimore to play with unreliable Kyle Boller. T.O. has been the best non-quarterback in the NFL. Reid and his staff, particularly defensive coordinator Jim Johnson, kept the boys trucking despite a steady stream of injuries. And McNabb has evolved from a really good quarterback to a great one.

Yes, Peyton Manning is the NFL's MVP. But McNabb has been the next best thing. Through five seasons McNabb has averaged 16 touchdowns and 11 interceptions; this season he has 29 touchdown passes and six interceptions. His career passer rating coming into the season was 79.6; before last night it was 110.5. He was a 57 percent passer, but this season is completing 65 percent.

Whether you love the Eagles or hate them, it turns out they're irresistible, probably the most compelling team in the NFL. They could be the first team in history to have lost three straight conference championship games that still has swagger. Goodness, are the Eagles full of themselves. And perhaps they have reason to be. Philly dropped 47 points on the Packers last week, with McNabb throwing five touchdown passes in a jaw-dropper of a performance. Three weeks before that, the Eagles laid 49 on the Cowboys in Dallas, which would have turned Bill Parcells's hair white if it wasn't already.

By the time the Redskins rolled into Philly the very next week, the Redskins appeared to be reduced to one big prop. They were the Washington Generals to the Eagles' Harlem Globetrotters. I half expected T.O. after one of his touchdown catches to throw a bucket of confetti on Joe Gibbs.

But the Redskins, despite the 28-6 loss, played the Eagles pretty even for three quarters plus, which is why there was so much optimism around town coming into this game. And they were even tougher on the Eagles this time. The toughest Redskin of all had to be Ronnie Lott -- I mean Sean Taylor. Taylor has a whole lot to learn about playing the position, which is why teams try to take advantage of him now. But increasingly, Taylor is looking like the most instinctive and violently disruptive safety since Lott was in his prime. Taylor is a beast, an absolute monster of defensive might. When you see opposing receivers -- good receivers -- dropping balls in open spaces and can't figure out why, Taylor is why. He's everywhere, running like a cornerback and hitting like Butkus.

Taylor turned the game around when he tipped a McNabb pass and turned it into a Shawn Springs interception before Springs got de-cleated on a play that scared everybody, and resulted in about the worst sight one can see at a football game: a player being carted off the field. A concussion "is better than a serious neck injury," T.O. said. "You know there are going to be serious injuries, but when you see a guy down and not moving. I was just saying a prayer for him."

Springs, it sounds like, will be back soon enough and right alongside Smoot and Ryan Clark and Taylor. In the absence of injured LaVar Arrington, Taylor has become the face of the Redskins' defense. Springs, Fred Smoot, Marcus Washington, Antonio Pierce, Joe Salave'a, Cornelius Griffin and Renaldo Wynn always play well, or so it seems. And every week it seems Gregg Williams is drawing up plays that allow a new guy like Ron Warner or Chris Clemons or somebody else who comes in cold off the bench to record a sack or key tackle. But Taylor is the guy who hits like a young Mike Tyson.

Defense turned the game around for the Redskins. Defense held McNabb down for only the second time all season. And just like most of the times the Redskins got close this season, especially against a good team, the offense wasn't up to the moment. Patrick Ramsey is dramatically better now than he was in Week 2 against the Giants, or for that matter a month ago against the Bengals. He's improved enough, probably, for the Redskins to beat the 49ers next week, probably the sorry Cowboys the week after that, and the choking Minnesota Vikings in the season finale.

But not the Eagles, who if nothing else have a sense of the dramatic, the arrogance to tease the Redskins the entire fourth quarter, then seal the victory with an interception in the final two minutes. The Eagles already know they're the best team in the NFC. They already know they've essentially got home field locked up through the playoffs. And if they get pushed to the limit by a division opponent like the Redskins on the way to the Super Bowl, then they'll take the challenge and the victory and be no worse for wear.

© 2004 The Washington Post Company