AS REPORTERS, we're wired to be a little skeptical.

We're always looking for the other angle, reading between the lines, dancing through the rhythms of what is said and left unsaid.

And when you've dealt with a coach who plays it as close to the vest as Andy Reid, it's easy to wonder how much of what he tells you is what he really wants you to know.

Making a generous estimate, I'd say about 4 1/2 percent.

So while I understand why Reid became a bit testy when questions turned to never-ending debate of Donovan McNabb's health in relation to his not playing on Sunday, the coach has only his past silence to blame for not getting more benefit of the doubt.

"Why does that matter?" Reid bristled when asked whether McNabb was disappointed in the decision not to play him. "I just got done telling you that [McNabb] wanted to play.

"Open your ears. I just got done telling you."

Well, if things go as Reid anticipates and McNabb returns to practice tomorrow, he won't have to deal with the question of who will start against the New York Giants on Sunday.

After A.J. Feeley threw four interceptions in Sunday's 28-24 loss to the Seattle Seahawks, few should still be arguing for the hot hand over the more talented player.

I know I won't be one of them.

The only reason not to start McNabb against New York would be if he has some kind of setback in his recovery from a sprained ankle and bruised thumb.

"Donovan is doing better," Reid said yesterday during his listing of injured Eagles. "He should be back for Wednesday's practice."

Feeley closed off the possibility of any debate by having his first and last passes intercepted by the Seahawks, the second game in a row he threw costly picks.

He got his chance and didn't get the job done.

So now, whatever slim playoff chances the Eagles have are squarely back on the shoulders of the quarterback who has come through so many times for Reid in the past.

It's clearly the circumstance Reid feels most comfortable with.

"Yeah, it's good to have . . . " Reid started to say when asked whether McNabb's return could provide a lift for the desperate Birds. "I don't want to take anything from A.J.

"Some of the best quarterbacks in the NFL have gone through days like this. Those things happen, and it's important you learn from them. On the other hand, I think it's very important that you get as many starters out [there], especially down the last quarter of the season, as you can."

Still, let's not be naïve.

Next to running back Brian Westbrook, McNabb is the one player who could make the most difference as the Eagles go on "Mission: Impossible" and try to squeeze into the NFC playoffs.

If McNabb can find his Pro Bowl form – something he has not done consistently all season – the Eagles have hope.

Asked whether McNabb's return would give the team a lift, safety Brian Dawkins said: "I believe it will. Donovan being healthy and being able to do what he does on the field. Hopefully, that will be one of the things that allows us to get on a run."

It is impossible to say with any measure of accuracy how McNabb will look against the Giants.

After struggling for much of the season, McNabb, who has played all season on a knee less than 100 percent, was starting to look as if he finally was improving when he went down with the ankle and thumb 2 weeks ago.

Last week, Reid said McNabb had looked good in workouts, and it's a safe assumption that he would have been out there against Seattle if his health had allowed it.

With every game being a must win, Reid can't worry.

Asked about whether McNabb might be rusty, Reid replied: "He may. I don't know that. I've seen him come off of injuries before and he played pretty well, so I would expect him to do that.

"But I can't say absolutely. I would say that last week, he worked as hard as you can work and still have an injury, making sure he kept his timing up."

It's not lost on anyone that McNabb, who did not play Sunday because his ankle did not give him full mobility, will play the Giants.

When the teams met on Sept. 30, a healthier McNabb was sacked 12 times.

"They've got a heck of a football team, and they got after us last time," Reid said. "In a big way, they got after us. We'll do what we need to do to protect the quarterback, whether he had a sore ankle or didn't have a sore ankle."

Next Monday, Reid will have another day-after-game news conference and, depending on the outcome, he might be a little sore.

But it won't be about scrutiny over who his starting quarterback is, because that particular aggravation has been put to rest. *

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