Last month, as the New York Giants prepared to play the Eagles, Giants defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo talked about "22 eyes on No. 36."
Spagnuolo, the former Eagles assistant, knew that Brian Westbrook was the most important Eagle to stop. And his team did just that: Westbrook gained only 26 yards on 13 carries, and caught three passes for 33 yards, in a 36-31 Giants victory.
It turned out that Westbrook was being bothered by ankle and knee problems more than he'd let on. His uncharacteristic lack of explosiveness continued through a painful tie at Cincinnati and a pitiful loss at Baltimore. Then, 4 days after limping off the Baltimore turf, Westbrook suddenly looked like himself again in Thursday's 48-20 victory over Arizona, a four-touchdown performance that netted the Birds' franchise back NFC Offensive Player of the Week honors.
Yesterday, Westbrook gave Eagles fans what might have been their best reason to hope for a huge upset this weekend at the Meadowlands, when the 6-5-1 Eagles visit the 11-1 Giants.
"Since the beginning of the year, since I started getting injured [in Week 3], this is probably the best I've felt," said Westbrook, who made a rare appearance as a full practice participant yesterday.
Not only did Westbrook run for 110 yards on 22 carries last week, he got precious extra time to heal before starting preparations for the Giants.
"No question, that extra 3 days of rest is big, especially for a guy who has been injured like I have," he said.
In a conference call with Philadelphia-area reporters, Giants defensive lineman Justin Tuck said Spagnuolo's emphasis hasn't changed.
"Everybody talks about [Donovan] McNabb. McNabb's a great quarterback, but everything with their offense starts with No. 36," Tuck said. "He's definitely our No. 1 focus."
Tuck said Westbrook is "very shifty, and he's always going north-south, you can never get him to go east-west. That makes him a threat on every down."
This has been a tough year for cornerback Lito Sheppard, displaced as a starter by the signing of Asante Samuel, frustrated in his efforts to be traded to a team that might upgrade his contract, less effective than usual in limited playing time. Thursday, the Eagles tapped hard-nosed Joselio Hanson, not Sheppard, to start against Arizona, with Samuel sidelined by a neck injury.
Since Hanson intercepted a Kurt Warner pass and was praised effusively by Eagles coach Andy Reid, it would seem likely that with Samuel returning, Hanson will become the nickel corner and Sheppard will float even closer to the margins, in a dime role.
Sheppard was asked yesterday whether his contract-trade-playing time situation had affected his play.
"Yes," he said, with extra emphasis. "There's just a lot that goes on . . . Not to make any excuses - you are what you put on the film - but there's a lot that goes on behind the scenes that affects players individually."
Sheppard said he thought the focus should be on the team right now, not on his dissatisfaction.
"That's the goal; play hard, do your best for this team, the guys that are fighting hard alongside you," he said.