NEW ORLEANS - They know. They know, they

know

.

You don't even have to say it.

If this Eagles offense had shown up a few times earlier in the season, the Birds would be going to the playoffs, would be the contender most people thought they were when the season began.

"It is [frustrating]," center Jamaal Jackson agreed, after the Eagles defeated the New Orleans Saints, 38-23, the visitors' second-highest-scoring game of the year, a week after they were officially eliminated from wild-card contention. The 7-8 Eagles have scored fewer than 20 points nine times this season. They lost three crucial games down the stretch by a total of 10 points. "In the back of our minds, we knew what we could do. We've been knowing what we could do, all year. We didn't put it together [when it mattered]. Today, we did."

"It's unfortunate that we're clicking on all the right cylinders at the end of the year, and we're not able to go the playoffs," said running back Correll Buckhalter, who contributed a 20-yard touchdown gallop to the cause. "But it's something we can build on" for next season.

"I figured that question would come up," quarterback Donovan McNabb said after completing 24 of 35 passes for 263 yards, three touchdowns, no interceptions and a 119.1 passer rating. McNabb joined Ron Jaworski as the only Eagles QBs to throw for more than 25,000 yards. "That's kind of the question we've all been asking ourselves . . . We need to feed off that, we need to have more games like that."

Of course, they only have one more opportunity, at home next Sunday against Buffalo, to have a game like that. McNabb is hoping for a boost going into the offseason, to solidify the idea that he is back to normal and that this team needs to reload, not rebuild.

Nobody really knows what management makes of McNabb's post-ACL-surgery season, of last week's Pam Oliver incident, or of the fact that McNabb and the entire team have played their best 2007 football on the road, where they have won five of their last six. But given what seems to be a solid young defense, if you thought you could go into 2008 with a rejuvenated No. 5, wouldn't you do it?

"I know it's too late. The guys know it's too late," coach Andy Reid said. "They're playing their hearts out, to finish this season strong . . . It's tough [not going to the playoffs], but we're going to enjoy every minute we can play this season, and then we'll sulk a little bit when it's done."

"This was a picture of what this offense can really do," said running back Brian Westbrook, who rushed 17 times for 100 yards. Westbrook has 2,005 total yards this season; the first yard he gains next week, he will tie Wilbert Montgomery's team record, set in 1979. "We've been able to move the ball pretty much all season, but we've struggled in the red zone. Today we were able to put the ball in the end zone, which was big for this team. If we'd been doing that all season long, it'd be a different story for this season . . . We have a team that should be in the playoffs. We haven't played like that, but today we did."

Let's not ignore the defense. Coming in, the idea that the Eagles' attack might do some damage against the league's 30th-ranked pass defense wasn't outlandish. But the Saints, now also 7-8, had put themselves back into the playoff picture after an 0-4 start because of their offense's ability to outscore opponents, behind quarterback Drew Brees, who played as well as anyone in the league the second half of the season. You could argue that the Eagles' defense made it possible for the offense to exploit the Saints' weaknesses yesterday, by limiting New Orleans to a pair of second-half field goals and getting the ball into McNabb's hands.

The key sequence came in the third quarter, when the Eagles stopped the Saints three times after New Orleans got to second-and-goal from the 1, the kind of stand the Eagles have made their signature. Then McNabb drove 98 yards in 15 plays, chewing up 7 minutes, 1 second before giving his team a 31-17 lead on a 9-yard touchdown pass to Greg Lewis.

What made the stand especially sweet was that Jim Johnson was playing an extremely inexperienced bunch - free safety Brian Dawkins had left the game with a foot injury, and Omar Gaither, the "old head" among the linebackers yesterday, playing in his 31st career NFL game, had left with a quad contusion. With Takeo Spikes on IR because of a rotator-cuff tear, Chris Gocong (15 games) became the Eagles' most experienced linebacker, lining up with Akeem Jordan (playing in his eighth game) and Stewart Bradley, a grizzled vet of 15 games, almost every bit of it before yesterday played on special teams.

No matter. When the Saints tried the right side with fullback Mike Karney, defensive end Trent Cole shut the play down. When Aaron Stecker went left, Bradley wrapped him up and slammed him. People who have been watching the Eagles' defense lately couldn't believe Saints coach Sean Payton didn't decide to kick a field goal and get within four points then, on the first possession of the second half, Payton facing fourth down and almost 2 yards to go.

Payton ran Stecker to the left again. He lost a yard, with Bradley and safety Quintin Mikell leading the charge.

"We weren't able to punch it in," Payton said. "That was a tough sequence, with us not getting it in, and the drive they put together seemed like it lasted forever."

There wasn't a lot of disagreement over what the game turned on.

"That really kind of broke their back," Gocong said.

"That's a game-changer right there, that's big," Cole said.

Bradley provided both a sack and an interception for a linebacking corps that has played OK but hasn't made a lot of big plays. With another solid game against Buffalo, he can give Johnson something to ponder in the offseason, the idea that the best trio might be Bradley in the middle, Gaither weakside and Gocong strongside, with Spikes either providing depth or off the books entirely, at $5 million next year.

"I think they have faith in me; they showed that by putting me on the field today," said Bradley, a third-round rookie from Nebraska. "Hopefully, I didn't disappoint."

The afternooon began frantically, with the teams combining for five touchdowns in the first 13:09, no drive lasting longer than 3:05.

The Eagles unleashed their best offensive first quarter in exactly 3 months, since that long-ago day of the powder blue-and-yellow jerseys against the Lions at the Linc. That afternoon, the Eagles scored touchdowns on their first five possessions. This time, the Birds scored on their third play - a wild-and-woolly 40-yard McNabb bootleg, on which he fumbled, but safety Josh Bullocks punched the ball all the way to the end zone from the 24, where wideout Kevin Curtis eventually recovered it for a touchdown. Maybe just as important, the Saints' best corner, Mike McKenzie, suffered a knee injury trying to recover the fumble and did not return.

The Saints also scored on their first drive, then they scored again, just five plays after Brian Westbrook fumbled an exchange from McNabb. But the Eagles scored the next 17 points, New Orleans unable to stop the run or the pass consistently.

A couple of key drops right before halftime kept the Birds from building their advantage and held McNabb to 10-for-18 for 154 yards and a 102.5 passer rating - still, first-half numbers that would have looked pretty good for an entire game at some points this season.

Then came the stand and the subsequent drive that really put the Eagles in charge. But New Orleans, still alive for a wild-card berth, didn't give up, and managed a pair of field goals that cut the deficit to 31-23, before Buckhalter's 34-yard kickoff return following the last field goal set the Birds up at their 44. McNabb drove the team 56 yards in nine plays for the touchdown that finally settled the outcome. On third-and-goal from the 7, McNabb stood in against a blitz and found Curtis in the end zone. Curtis became the second 1,000-yard receiver of the Andy Reid era, after Terrell Owens in 2004.

Westbrook said that having had ACL surgery himself, after a high-school injury, he understood that McNabb wouldn't be full speed until late this season. "He's getting back to his old self," Westbrook said. "These last 2 weeks are proof of that."

The Eagles aren't going to get a recount on that playoff-elimination thing, no matter how good they looked yesterday, or in Dallas last week, no matter what they do against the Bills in the finale. But maybe they can move forward with a better sense of the team they can become in 2008.

"We are where we are," said Cole, 25. "We put ourselves in a situation, and it's too late . . . Next year's a new year, and it's going to look good . . . It was all young guys out there on the field today. Shows you what kind of upcoming crop we have." *