What Washington sees as commonplace, Philadelphia sees as a gift from the football gods. The Eagles have overcome the loss of arguably the best defensive player in the NFL because -- at last -- they now can execute one of the game's basics: kicking.

For an embarrassingly long time, the intrigue for Eagle fans was not how far and how high their punter would loft the ball but whether he would kick it at all. Mike Michel actually whiffed, missed the ball completely. Twice. In one game.

Field goals nearly were as bad. Game after game, the Eagles would find themselves in position to win, and their placekicker would find a way to miss an important three points. Philadelphia was a melting pot for foreign kickers for whom the space between the uprights suddenly became foreign.

Still, the Eagles made the playoffs last season, for the first time in nearly a generation, because Dick Vermeil had done more with less than any coach in the NFL for three years.

With 17 seconds left, they were a point behind the Falcons and on the Atlanta 16-yard line. The luckless Michel missed from the 24-yard line, chip-shot distance for most kickers, and Atlanta made the NFC title game.

This season the Eagles spent a little and received a lot. With an eighth-round draft choice, they mined a rookie, Mike Bragg-like punter, Max Runager. On the third round, they took Tony Franklin, a rookie who kicks the ball barefooted nearly as far as Mark Moseley does wearing 13 rools of tape and 34 socks.

"What a perfect time for us, Thanksgiving," Eagle General Manager Jim Murray said. "Number one, we've got something to be thankful for -- and we used to be the turkeys. Last year we finally gave our fans a playoff game.

"Who knows. Maybe we'll give them a game in January some year. Our team's a lot like the Redskins -- we won't win the computer contests, but we'll win the people contest. And we also hadn't had any top draft choices for a while, until this year.

"We'd get excited if we drafted before 5 o'clock the first day."

The best way to examine how the Eagles, with no draft choice higher than the third round from 1974 through '78, have been successful -- and then to suggest why they should remain so -- is to look back to that wild-card game against the Falcons.

Philadelphia and Atlanta both had 9-7 records. This season, with the serious loss of injured linebacker Bill Bergey, the Eagles are 8-4 and the Falcons 4-8. A major reason is how both teams see themselves.

Vermeil is the most conservative coach in a game famous for cautious play. Like everyone respected in the NFL, he can accept his team losing, but not beating itself.

To him, a Franklin is especially important, because the team has worked so hard to put the ball in his range that it can become inordinately charged or deflated, depending on the length and distance of his kicks.

In contrast, Atlanta is the most hell-bent team in the NFL. It blitzes every other down and throws more long passes than those touch teams that play near the White House each Sunday.

The conclusion: There is a proper way and a wrong way to build a football team and unfortunately, dull beats dazzling most weeks in the NFL. In the preseason, Washington was among the first teams to find a way to consistently beat the Falcon defense.

"What Vermeil instilled, more than anything else," said the Redskins' director of pro personnel, Kirk Mee, "is not to take the easy way toward winning, but to go about it with good, solid, football.

"It's a little like Pittsburgh (which the Eagles beat this year). Play error-free ball (while building the team), win some you shouldn't and stay hungry. The Eagles have solid people in the right spots (quarterback, running back and tight end) on offensive and the defense plays well together."

Runager's first regular-season punt was blocked; he has punted exceptionally well since. Bergey suffered a season-ending knee injury the first play against the Saints; the Eagles won the next five games.

"The defenses has lots of people very few fans outside Philly recognize," Mee said. "But Charlie Johnson's the best nose man (middle guard in the 3-4 defense) around. Trading for Claude Humphrey was good -- and their linebackears are adequate and hustling."

Offensively, the Eagles have what George Allen calls "home-run hitters" at all the big-play positions, quarterback and running back, wide receiver and tight end. Their games against the Redskins were so vastly different, a rematch -- in the play-offs -- seems appropriate.

"Our division almost always has been underrated," Murray said. "We don't get the tinsel. But we almost always had the wild-card team when there was just one. And we might get both of 'em this year.

"But this is a game where all the cliches are exactly right. I'm a baseball fan. I know the game's not over 'til the last out in the ninth. Like Dick says, every game's a championship game from now on."

Murray also enjoys golf.

"Gotta make all the putts in this game, too," he said. "Nobody gives you anything in this league."