NEW ORLEANS - The frustrating part is that the Eagles played the kind of game at the end of this season on the road against the Saints that you wanted to see them play in the same situation last year.

If yesterday's unexpected 38-23 win over New Orleans serves as a feel-good springboard for the 2008 season - pending Sunday's finale against Buffalo, of course - unfortunately that's the most that could be asked of it. This season lost all remaining meaning last week, and the final two games would be solely for pride and potential future employment.

Well, it certainly was one to place on the mantel with pride, although there's not much company up there this season. The Eagles played a complete game, despite some serious absences due to injury.

Coach Andy Reid has said that many of the Eagles' problems this season can be traced to overall team health, and that's been hard to dispute. But how could the Eagles play as they did yesterday without Shawn Andrews, L.J. Smith, Takeo Spikes and, for most of the game, Brian Dawkins?

"When you get the whole team, it's good to get the guys back in there, healthy and playing together at key positions," Reid said.

That list of key positions, apparently, doesn't include linebacker, tight end and a few selected others.

"I'll let you figure that out," Reid said.

It could be that Reid's personal list doesn't extend much past the quarterback position. The offense's turnaround could be explained - if you choose to see it that way - by Donovan McNabb finally finishing off his knee rehabilitation. The two weeks he spent on the shelf because of minor thumb and ankle injuries gave him the time to place the last brick in that wall.

He scrambled nicely against Dallas in the previous game, and then unleashed that 40-yard naked bootleg at the beginning of yesterday's game. If the quarterback didn't look entirely like the McNabb of old, at least he didn't look like an old McNabb any longer.

The win over the Saints was a further indication that, if the organization had any doubts about bringing back McNabb, now even those lingering ones are faded. Everything that was said about the effects of the knee surgery on his performance can be repeated into the deep months of the off-season and, at least internally, taken as gospel. When Reid said it was important for the team to finish strong, he was also speaking largely of McNabb.

"It gives you at least a positive going in," Reid said. "Every year is different. Every team is different. It keeps a good positive atmosphere around the office."

Well, fine. But winning in the Superdome at the end of last season would have done a lot more for the office cheer. And it might be an oversimplification, but the Eagles always seemed to play better this season with the pressure off.

They competed with the Patriots when no one gave them a chance. They gutted out a win against the Cowboys when the playoffs were all but impossible. And they jumped up and beat the Saints when it didn't really matter.

"There was a good feeling in the air coming into this game," receiver Kevin Curtis said. "We had nothing to lose."

They also had nothing to win, and while you have to give them credit for not tanking, you also have to wonder why they couldn't play this well, this loose when there was still something on the line. Why wasn't there a good feeling in the air at home against the Seahawks and the Giants? Mystifying.

"A lot of us were talking after the game and said, 'That was the old Eagles team,' " running back Correll Buckhalter said. "Unfortunately, it came at the wrong time."

No, the old Eagles team was able to handle pressure, and not just the absence of it.

"We didn't get it done when it counted," receiver Jason Avant said. "Sometimes it doesn't work out."

Ironically, the team that rumbled around inside the Superdome looked a lot like the team the Eagles were expected to be when the season began. It was supposed to be an explosive, multitalented offense led by a veteran quarterback whose own skill set is pretty impressive. It was supposed to be an aggressive defense, although untried at the linebacker position and questionable in its depth.

That is the team that finally showed up. Even with Stewart Bradley and Akeem Jordan getting reps, even with Max Jean-Gilles playing the entire game and third-string tight end Brent Celek holding down that position.

It wasn't so much

who

played as

how

they played. The group out there yesterday played, not surprisingly, as if there was nothing on the line and nothing to fear.

The trick is getting that when the outcome matters, and it is a trick the Eagles and their coaching staff couldn't master all season.

Contact columnist Bob Ford

at 215-854-5842 or bford@phillynews.com.

Read his recent work at http://go.philly.com/bobford.