QUINTIN MIKELL has gone from nubble-faced to a Just For Men look. Joselio Hanson looks like a high school kid giving it the old college try, facial growth spotted around his face.

Some of the others look pretty much the way they looked yesterday, or 2 weeks ago when the facial-growth idea first sprouted.

"And some guys aren't as committed as other guys,'' Mikell said yesterday. "You've got a couple of pretty boys who have kind of edged up and stuff. But as long as everyone understands the focus . . . ''

The focus? Oh yeah, the focus. Winning games. The playoffs. A few weeks ago, reaching deep into a bag of tricks that seemed to have finally emptied, Brian Dawkins decided he would grow a playoff beard, would purposely create an itch that needed to be scratched daily, if not hourly.

He urged his teammates to do the same. He suggested it strongly to the defense. He more or less mandated it to the secondary.

"Just a constant reminder of this push we're on and the serious nature of where we are,'' Dawkins said yesterday. " . . . We welcome all comers. You guys can join in, if you want.''

Or, to borrow from the O'Jays, get on board, join in, rub train, rub train . . .

"It's grimy time,'' Mikell said. "Time to get down and dirty.''

The Eagles go for their third victory in a row Monday night when they host the 4-9 Cleveland Browns. They are 7-5-1, still on a ledge when it comes to the postseason, but maybe with a little better footing. The head coach is back to not answering questions in his press conferences, the quarterback is cracking jokes and sounding a lot less defensive. And Dawkins, the 35-year-old defensive captain who seemed to be aging before our eyes much of this season, has played well and led a defensive resurgence.

He looked old and exposed in the first meeting with the Giants, the one when the defense was on the field for more than 39 minutes. He didn't look so good against Cincinnati, either, and he seemed to wear out in that ugly loss in Baltimore. Dawkins will become the Eagles' all-time leader in games played Monday night, surpassing Harold Carmichael. He called that "a blessing" and "aggravating," the latter because it adds a dimension each time he plays a bad or mediocre game.

"Until I retire, it's always going to be the case,'' Dawkins said. "It comes with the territory when you get up there and play enough years.''

But here's the thing: No one has mentioned the age thing for more than 2 weeks. The beards - and Mikell has by far the best - have coincided with two of the defense's best and most consistent games. Dawkins seems to be improving as the weeks go on, not wearing down.

What was the name of that cat who drew strength from his hair?

Oh yeah, Samson.

Dawkins spoke of pushing to the next level down the stretch. Brian Westbrook used the same phrase, but there's always been something unnerving about that image. John Updike once wrote that the concept of a clutch hitter was obscene, since it implied the player was not doing his best in regular at-bats. Doesn't the next level, in December of this uneven season, suggest the same?

"The next level, for me, is just when you flat-out stop thinking and you play,'' Dawkins said. "When everything is slowed down even more than it already had for me. The confidence in success is very much heightened. I think that's there too.''

They finish with two of their last three games at home, starting with Monday night's game with the Browns. Just south of here, the Washington Redskins are unraveling, losing winnable games and feuding with each other, just in time for a team that has emerged suddenly as not just a contender, but a dangerous one.

That end-of-the-season finale against Dallas? The one that just 2 weeks ago held little meaning? It now seems to be an inevitable winner-take-all clash - the victor playoff-bound, the loser maybe to be blown up in the offseason. The old man can't think that far ahead, can't think really, beyond his next itch.

"Right now it's there,'' Dawkins said. "We feel it and I think everyone is feeling it. You can feel the attention to detail, you can feel the desire. Everything is where it needs to be right now. I think we're playing our best ball at the right time.'' *

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