WHEN Donovan McNabb looks across the line of scrimmage Sunday, the Eagles quarterback said he'll see "another safety with a visor," not the former heart and soul of the Birds' defense.

For the fans, this is the most anticipated game of the season, no question, the return of Brian Dawkins to Philadelphia. There's also no question that the Eagles can't get sucked into that melodrama, and that avoiding it could be tricky.

"Our team understands that we're not playing Buck and Dawk, we're playing the Denver Broncos," Eagles coach Andy

Reid said yesterday, including former Birds running back Correll Buckhalter in the homecoming mix. "They know that they need to study the team, as opposed to studying those two players."

Of course, the Eagles know that, say, they're probably going to have a harder time keeping NFL sacks leader Elvis Dumervil (15) out of their backfield than Dawkins, and they'd better be studying defensive end Dumervil, but after Dawk's 13 seasons in Philadelphia and seven Pro Bowls, No. 20's ties to this locker room are strong and deep. Is not obssessing over him as easy as saying you can't afford to do it?

Eagles safety Quintin Mikell was saying yesterday he hopes Dawkins will be paying attention when the Denver offense is on the field - Mikell wants to show his former mentor how much he's learned.

"It's almost like when your big brother goes away to college and he comes back," Mikell said. "All those years when you were losing to him in basketball, you kind of show him, 'Look what I can do.' It's an opportunity to show what I've been able to learn from him, and show I can hold it down a little bit."

This was just before Mikell was asked whether it will be tough to block out the presence of Dawkins (and Buckhalter).

His answer?

"Heck no, man. Once we get on the field, all that goes out the window. The bottom line is whoever is across from you, they're going to try to kick your butt, and I'm going to try to kick their butt. I'm not really worried about all that stuff, once we get going."

So Mikell won't have any trouble blocking out Dawkins' presence - while he's trying to show Dawkins how much he's learned. Hmmm.

The saga of Dawkins' departure has been hashed and rehashed. The bottom line from this corner is that the Broncos gave more money (more than $9 million the first 2 years of a 5-year, $17 million deal) to a going-on-36-year-old safety than almost anyone (including Dawkins) thought would be out there, and that the Eagles never should have let it get to that point. Dawkins' agent seemed to want to take him to free agency, didn't want to strike a deal here. Eagles president Joe Banner later said he regretted not dealing more with Dawk directly; Banner is smart enough that he should have seen that problem coming. If there's one guy the lines of communication should have been wide open with, it was Brian Dawkins. (And yes, I know the Eagles ended up investing the Dawkins cap money elsewhere. As hard as it is to fathom where this team would be without Stacy Andrews, I'd be willing to try.)

But it happened the way it happened, and it's been a long time now. Yesterday, you definitely got the impression Dawkins was tired of talking about it, in his conference call with Philadelphia-area reporters. He might be facing the same battle as the Eagles when it comes to focus, except with higher stakes - Denver is 8-6 after a 6-0 start, and of course, has not clinched a playoff berth.

"Once the ball's snapped, it's football. It's a very important game for both of us, just like I thought it would be," Dawkins said. "You have to be able to get all the distractions out of your head, whether you're playing your former team, or a family member, whatever it is."

McNabb hit the same point.

"It really doesn't matter who you play. At some point you're going to play against someone you're very good friends with, or you grew up with, whatever it may be," he said. "It just so happens that we have the Denver Broncos in this particular game, and I think we have to approach this game like it's just a normal game, a game we need, and in order for us to accomplish something that we set out [to do] in the offseason, we have to win. We've had the mentality all throughout these past couple of weeks, and this isn't going to be any different."

Jeremiah Trotter said he didn't think getting down to business would be too hard, for Dawkins or the Eagles. Trotter's first game against the Birds as a Redskin in 2002, after a bitter offseason departure from Philadelphia, commanded a pretty bright spotlight, though it didn't match the weeklong Dawkathon.

"If anything, it's added motivation, man," Trotter said. "Your energy level is so high. I can tell you now, he's going to have an extra dose of energy, an extra dose of intensity, and he's already intense . . . We've got to come out and match that intensity."

Of course, Dawkins brings his intimate knowledge of the Eagles' schemes and key players to bear on Denver's game-planning. That could be a factor Sunday, though such matters work both ways. In the case of Trotter, it turned out the Eagles knew he could be tricked with play-action, and they did just that, a whole bunch, in a 37-7 win over the Redskins.

"[Dawkins] played under Jim Johnson. Sean's [McDermott] defense is so different," Trotter said. "I guarantee you that those coaches down there know our offense just as much as Dawkins does. Maybe he can give 'em insight on personnel, but they know that, too, from watching film."

McNabb said: "I'm just going to play the way that I've been playing. He's a smart, smart safety, one that studies well. I'm sure he's going to take a little bit of knowledge of being here and us scrimmaging against each other in training camp as well as during the season. He's going to watch the film and communicate with the rest of his defenders, but we can't get caught up in trying to change things because he used to be here. We just have to run our offense."

One uncomfortable part of the matchup is the inevitable question about whether the Eagles are as good defensively as they would be had they been able to hold on to Dawkins. Certainly, Dawk would make them more consistent against the run and he'd cover up for some of the missed tackles. Reid brought Trotter out of retirement at least in part to make up for the loss of Dawkins' leadership.

But anybody who watched Dawkins in coverage the past few years knows that Sean Jones and Macho Harris don't seem to be a huge downgrade. (Though the Broncos are second in the NFL against the pass, and the Eagles are 14th.)

"That's an interesting question," Mikell said. He seemed to be thinking about the fact that whatever he said was going to get back to his current teammates. Stats aside, Mikell said, "The way I look at it is, you can't look at it like that; he's not here . . . In my opinion, Dawk, it's tough to replace a guy like that. I really miss having him here, but he's not here, so we have to look at it like that. We have to go out there and play ball."

For more Eagles coverage and opinion, read the Daily News' Eagles blog, Eagletarian, at www.eagletarian.com.