THE EAGLES have had more wacky end-of-the-half plays go against them this year than any team in NFL history. OK, maybe that's an exaggeration. But two blocked field goals for touchdowns and a 98-yard interception return that just barely didn't go for a touchdown must put you in the pantheon of wacky, or at least on the front steps.
You were cursing the old standbys, the playcalling and the quarterback, as the Cleveland Browns' Brandon McDonald intercepted a pass 5 yards deep in the end zone and returned it 98 yards before Hank Baskett, the intended receiver of the pass, finally dragged him down.
You should have been watching Brian Westbrook, who ran all the way down the field and didn't tackle McDonald but did slow him down for Baskett to clean up. "I knew he was going to catch me," McDonald said. "You know Westbrook's a great athlete and he made the play."
You should have been watching Westbrook at all times.
Westbrook is the main reason for the Eagles' late-season resurgence. His continued health and productivity will determine how far the Eagles can make this thing go. If the most important thing last night was for the Eagles to win the game - and they did, 30-10 - the second-most important thing was for Westbrook to come out of the evening in one piece.
By all accounts, he did.
With that, the 8-5-1 Eagles can head to Washington for what amounts to their fourth consecutive elimination game. The Redskins are reeling, but they still will be the home team and still hold faint playoff hopes. And you have seen what the Eagles look like when Westbrook is either absent or hobbled. You have seen how painful this offense becomes, how burdened this quarterback seems to become.
Westbrook lifts them. He makes the rest of them better. He does more of that than any player on his team. They didn't really need him last night, but they will lean on him heavily now.
And now, well, what did Donovan McNabb say last night? This: "[They don't remember how you play] early in the season. They
always remember how you are playing toward the end . . . "
We will debate this thing in the coming weeks (and years, if the Eagles were to make a January run). We will ask the question: What was the key to them turning around their 5-5-1 season?
Some people will say that it was the benching of McNabb at halftime of the Baltimore game. It's a valid enough argument, even if McNabb doesn't want to hear it or acknowledge it. He has been so much sharper since it happened (seven touchdowns and only one interception since the benching). It is easy to do cause-effect.
"He continues to lead this team," Westbrook said. "He is the guy that we need and that is what we expect from him."
Some will look at the offensive line, which pass-blocked so well for so long this season but didn't seem to be opening the holes for the running game. Suddenly, after the Baltimore game, the holes were there. Challenged by the team's bleak circumstances, and given a few more run calls by the coaching staff, the line responded. It is a fine argument.
But it was Westbrook most of all. It was his return from knee and ankle injuries, which had slowed him so much against Cincinnati and Baltimore. A day or 2 before the Arizona game on Thanksgiving night, he told people he was feeling better - and he showed it against the Cardinals and then against the Giants.
He was the one who made the line look better (even if the holes were somewhat bigger, against the Cardinals especially). He was the one who lifted the weight off of McNabb, taking enough of the offensive responsibility and freeing up the quarterback's whole being, it seemed.
In previous seasons, after a big-workload game like Westbrook had last week against the Giants, he often has been unspectacular. He was unspectacular against the Browns, too - 16 carries for 53 yards, three catches for 14 yards. But it is his very presence on the field that forces defenses to commit to him. The very act of running out on the field is a decent percentage of his value.
Westbrook was on the field with a little more than 11 minutes to go in the fourth quarter, when McNabb threw the touchdown pass to Greg Lewis that increased the Eagles' lead to 30-3. It was his final play. As rain began to fall, as a pretty tedious night wound down, all eyes could turn toward the Redskins, toward the next elimination game.
"We are just going to continue to play hard and win our next two games," Westbrook said. "At this point, all we can do is control what we do on the field."
Before that will come another week of taking Brian Westbrook's temperature. Every day, from here until this business ends, it will remain the Eagles' most important question. *
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