It is unquantifiable but invaluable, as contagious as a winter flu bug, and it seems to have run through the Eagles' locker room at just the right time. Mike Quick remembers having it in 1988, when his Eagles team rolled through the last seven weeks of the regular season with only one loss.

It's confidence, yes, but so much more. Part swagger, part fearlessness, part knowledge that no one else is better - no player, no team, no matter what a few numbers in a record might say.

It is what allowed the Eagles to dominate the New York Giants last weekend, even though the Giants had lost only once all season and the Eagles, well, the Eagles couldn't beat the Cincinnati Bengals. And if the Eagles can maintain it, can nurture it, can keep it from disappearing as quickly as it arrived, then they should be able to beat the Cleveland Browns tonight, and from there, who knows? The Redskins? The Cowboys? The playoffs?

Amazingly, even with the Eagles' midseason slump when they seemed to beat themselves before ever stepping onto the field, all of that is possible.

"You know it when you have it, you do," Quick said last week as the Eagles, 7-5-1 but winners of two straight, got ready to play the four-win Browns. "And you play like it. You play with more confidence. You play with more enthusiasm, because you feel it.

"You feel like you've got it, and you feel like when you step on the field you're the best team on the field, and I think that's where they are. When they step on the field each of these three remaining games, I think they're going to feel like they're the best team on the field. And I expect them to play that way."

Certainly, this Eagles team has never lacked for confidence, even to a fault. Ever since minicamps last spring, they've felt as if they had the individual talent to be contenders. In training camp, the players talked about recapturing the NFC East, of making the playoffs, of pushing toward the Super Bowl.

That all seemed possible in those early weeks, when the Eagles rolled over St. Louis, hung with Dallas in a Texas Stadium shoot-out, and then overcame Pittsburgh's staunch defense to improve to 2-1.

All that confidence - or was it bravado? - sounded so hollow after that loss to Chicago, and then the one to Washington, when they couldn't gain a yard or get a stop. Sure, the Eagles thought they should've beaten those teams, thought they had the superior squad, but it's hard to believe when the losses mount, one after the other. The Giants. The Ravens. The tie with the lowly Bengals.

Somehow, the Eagles never stopped believing, and that belief, combined with improved play on both sides of the ball, more balanced play-calling and Brian Westbrook's return to health, has carried the Eagles to where they are now: in the playoff picture.

They'll need a little help from Atlanta, which beat Tampa Bay in overtime yesterday, but if the Eagles win their remaining three games, they'll have a shot at making the playoffs. Winning even one NFC East game seemed unlikely right before Thanksgiving, but now it looks totally doable.

The Redskins have cooled from their hot start, lost to Cincinnati yesterday, and have a running back questioning the so-called "genius" of first-year coach Jim Zorn. The Cowboys are dealing with that all-too-familiar foe, a disgruntled Terrell Owens, who is on the verge of tearing apart his third team, all because of his insecurity, selfishness and ego. If it's bad in Dallas now, and by all accounts it is with Owens reportedly confronting star tight end Jason Witten on Friday, imagine how it will be in two more weeks.

The Eagles' coaches spent part of last week beating into the players' heads the problems the Browns present, but this game will be determined by which Eagles team takes the field: the one with "it" or the one without.

"We don't ever lack confidence," Eagles offensive coordinator Marty Mornhinweg said, "but there's that unexplainable little feeling when you are playing at the top of your game. Look, we can play better now. We played well. We did some excellent things. But we can play better. There is more out there for us."

Quick remembers 1988 as if it were yesterday, when the Eagles won all of their November games, lost to Washington by a point, and then won big road games at Phoenix and Dallas to win the NFC East.

"In November and December leading up to the playoffs, I didn't think anybody was better than we were in that year," Quick said. "It's just a feeling that you get, and it kind of goes through the locker room and you play that way. Like [last] Sunday. They knew they were the best team on the field on Sunday, despite what the records were, despite all the great things the Giants have done. [The Eagles] knew that they were the best team on the field, and they played like the best team on the field."

Asked what that feeling of invincibility, of superiority, of unwavering confidence is worth this time of year, Quick sighed, searching for a value.

"A lot," he finally said. "I don't know how you quantify what that's worth. It's way up there."

If the Eagles can maintain it, this season, seemingly so lost a few weeks ago, might not have been a waste after all.