NEW ORLEANS - The Eagles have returned here to begin the ritual burial of their season, but they won't get a slow march down Canal Street with funereal jazz-band accompaniment.

Instead, they will get, as usual, the deafening roar of the Superdome and a football game against a team lucky enough to extend its regular season for at least one more week.

On the motivational scale, the Saints should be way ahead of the Eagles today. That can work both ways, but generally speaking the team with something at stake is a better bet than the team merely crossing days off the calendar.

There are a few games like this on the NFL schedule this weekend, freshly eliminated teams matching up against those with something on the line, whether it is sheer survival or playoff seeding. Some of the vanquished teams will take the easy way out, some will rage against the unfairness of it all and put up a good fight.

If you had to guess, the Eagles will be in the second group. They have played erratically much of the year - too many penalties, too many blown coverages and dumb mistakes - but they have played hard enough. They still have their pride, and they also understand that everything they do goes on film, whether the game matters or not.

"Things might happen for you in the future based on how you play in these two games, so you can't go out there and give up," defensive tackle Mike Patterson said. "We still have two more games left, and we have to do our best to get a couple of wins."

Everyone said the right things this week, possibly including Donovan McNabb, who spoke in his standard circular holding patterns, and it was hard to tell exactly

what

he was talking about.

Saying the right thing is a lot different than sticking one's head in front of an opponent, however, or fighting through a difficult block. That part is hard, and it remains to be seen if the Eagles play as well as they talked.

"It is kind of tough when you really don't have anything to look forward to," linebacker Chris Gocong said, "but once you step out there, all the playoff stuff, the wild-card stuff, that goes out of your head and it's just playing football. At this level, when the switch turns on, nothing matters but playing football."

Lining up against New Orleans, the Eagles will face a team much like themselves, a team that had a letdown season compared with 2006. The Saints were able to recover better from their slow (0-4) start, however. Quarterback Drew Brees found his stride and the team has won seven of its last 10 games.

Brees has had some advantages McNabb did not. The New Orleans quarterbacks have been sacked just 12 times this season, compared with 42 for the Eagles' quarterbacks. The Saints also committed far fewer penalties and had a superior special-teams game, a combination that gave Brees better field position from which to work. Little things, but enough of them so the Saints are 7-7 instead of 6-8, and still have a legitimate chance at the postseason.

Andy Reid and his coaching staff said it is important for the Eagles to finish the season strong, although the notion that anything will really carry over to 2008 is hard to support. Seasons are like snowflakes, no two alike, and momentum is rarely passed from one to the next. Did the Eagles' uplifting late run to the playoffs in 2006 help out this year?

McNabb's critics will observe that it might have if Jeff Garcia, the unlikely leader of the 2006 revival, had stayed in the huddle - at least until McNabb's surgically repaired knee was fully healed. Fair enough, although both Garcia and McNabb had a shot at the Saints last season and the result for each was a 27-24 loss.

The starting quarterback can hardly be blamed for the injuries that cut short the past two seasons for him, and, if nothing else, he will enjoy finishing this one in uniform. All the static and noise about whether McNabb will put on the same uniform next season has been little more than an interesting parlor game. The organization's position is clear and, unless McNabb demands a trade, he will be back.

So they will try to finish strong, for whatever it is worth. An 8-8 record would look better than 7-9 or 6-10. An exit before cheering home fans next weekend would sound better than getting booed into the oblivion of the off-season. They will try.

"Ain't going to be a letdown, in my opinion," safety Quintin Mikell said. "We don't want to end the season on a bad note, and, hopefully, we'll ruin Christmas for some people."

In the past, they were spoiled by success. Now they are merely spoilers. It's a long way down. And a longer way back up.

Contact columnist Bob Ford at 215-854-5842 or bford@phillynews.com. Read his recent work at http://go.philly.com/bobford.