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Defined by losing but not defeated

Veteran linebacker Takeo Spikes has never been to the playoffs, yet he's sure the Eagles can get there.

As an expert on the agony of defeat, Takeo Spikes knew he had missed an opportunity to alter the outcome of the game.

The veteran linebacker was sure that if Seattle quarterback Matt Hasselbeck's first pass of the game a week ago had not slipped through his hands, the Eagles would have left Lincoln Financial Field with a 6-6 record and in a four-way tie for the last NFC wild-card spot.

An hour after the Eagles' 28-24 loss to the Seahawks, Spikes' pained expression remained in place and he really didn't want to talk about it. He took just enough time to pin the blame for the defeat on himself.

"The one that I dropped early, I think that would have changed the momentum of the game," Spikes said.

It didn't help that Seattle linebacker Julian Peterson agreed with him.

"Me and Peterson are good friends, and he came up to me after the game and said, 'Spikes, I've never seen you drop a pick, especially one like that. You're supposed to take that to the house,' " Spikes said. "If he's thinking that, chances are if I had gotten that pick, I hope I would have taken it to the house."

A day later, still kicking himself, Spikes held a one-man practice.

"He was out here catching 100 balls from the Jugs machine," defensive coordinator Jim Johnson said.

Four days later, with the Eagles well into preparation for today's must-win game against the New York Giants, the memory and the pain lingered. Spikes said linebackers coach Sean McDermott had instructed him to stop talking about the missed interception, but he couldn't help himself.

"Just the confidence, the momentum . . . because we turned the ball over and the first play I come back out, and I have a chance to make a statement," Spikes said. "That's what you're supposed to do as a prime, superior defensive player. You're supposed to make those plays, and that's what I pride myself on."

Spikes, who will turn 31 a week from tomorrow, has made his share of plays over the course of his 10 NFL seasons. He's been to the Pro Bowl twice and led his team in tackles four times. What he's never done is participate in a playoff game, and he was sure this would be the year that changed.

After being traded to the Eagles from Buffalo in late March, he had only one thought.

"Playoffs," Spikes said. "That was the first vision I had. I remember several of my friends saying, 'Now, you're not just going out there competing. Now, you have a chance to contend for the title.' "

That was a comforting thought, considering he had played on just one winning team in nine seasons. His combined record with Cincinnati and Buffalo was 46-85, and that included seven double-digit losing seasons in nine years. He has never been part of a double-digit winning season, and with the Eagles at 5-7 going into today's game, that won't change.

Spikes, however, hasn't given up on the notion that the Eagles can still claim a wild-card berth, and he said he reminded his teammates of that after the loss to Seattle.

"We're hanging by a thread, and that makes it hard, but I'm no stranger to this type of adversity," Spikes said. "One of the things I told the team after the game last week was we're not where we want to be, but we still have a chance. We have to depend on people, and that's not the way we want it. But we still have a chance, and the only thing we need to focus on right now is winning this one game."

Even if the Eagles lose today, or next week at Dallas, or are eliminated at any point in their final four games, it's a pretty safe bet that Spikes will show up ready to play anyway. It's his nature.

"Hines Ward used to tell me, 'You're team is sorry, but you played your butt off,' " Spikes said. "I took pride in that."

Johnson said he didn't know exactly what to expect from Spikes. The linebacker had missed 17 games in the last two seasons, including 13 in 2005 with a torn right Achilles tendon.

"I was anticipating a guy that has been in the league 10 years coming over here and coming off an injury and not being able to play as much," Johnson said. "But I can't get that kid off the field. He's a pro, he's got a great attitude, and he probably works as hard as any player I've ever been around, as far as spending time here and doing the right things. He's much better than I thought."

Spikes has one year left on a contract he signed with Buffalo and is scheduled to make $5 million next season. Johnson said he would highly recommend that Spikes be brought back as the veteran of a linebacker corps that has exceeded expectations.

"He's a pro, he's a steady player, and to me he looks healthy," Johnson said. "I watched film on him last year, and I was a little scared coming off that injury, but I don't see any indication of it. He's just going to get better, too."

Flattered by Johnson's appraisal, Spikes believes the linebacker corps has a chance to be special if it remains together in 2008. Middle linebacker Omar Gaither and strongside linebacker Chris Gocong, both second-year players, are in their first full season as starters. The Eagles haven't kept the same three linebackers in place in back-to-back seasons once during Johnson's nine years as the defensive coordinator.

"I think we're 10 times better next year," Spikes said. "We keep stats of everything the linebackers have done here the past three years, and when you look at what we've done . . . as far as yards per rush and rushing yards per game, we've been blowing them out of the water."

The Eagles, who are ranked ninth in the NFL against the run, are allowing 96.8 rushing yards per game and 3.7 yards per carry, which is a vast improvement over a year ago, when the defense ranked 26th against the run, allowing 136.4 yards per game and 4.5 yards per rush.

Spikes, who picked up his first sack of the season against the Seahawks, is just as sure that this linebacker trio will get better as he is that the Eagles are good enough to be in the playoffs.

"I think we're eyelash-close," he said. "There's no secret we have to win every game from here on out, but before we talk about the other three, the Giants are the most important."