THE EAGLES suddenly have the NFL's third-ranked defense, after allowing just one offensive touchdown the past two games, and yesterday that status was rewarded with a pair of Pro Bowl berths.

Free safety Brian Dawkins was selected to represent the NFC in Hawaii for the seventh time in his 13-year career, a total surpassed only by Hall of Famer Chuck Bednarik, who was selected eight times. Cornerback Asante Samuel, signed by the Birds to a $57 million free agent contract last spring, validated that decision by being chosen for the Pro Bowl for the second year in a row. Samuel was a member of the AFC team last season, as a New England Patriot.

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"A very aggressive defense. We like to get after the quarterback and apply a lot of pressure,'' Samuel said yesterday, when someone asked him how he would characterize the unit. "Pressure busts pipes."

Dawkins recalled that the defense set a goal going into the season, to be one of the best units in the league. "I feel that right now, we're closing in on being one of the best units," he said.

In both cases, the selections - based on voting by players, coaches and fans - seemed at least a mild surprise. Dawkins had some rough moments earlier in the season, when he looked every bit of his 35 years, though he has been quite solid in recent weeks. Samuel intercepted a pass and ran it back 50 yards for a touchdown Monday night against Cleveland, but before that, the corner brought in to boost the team's takeaway total had managed just three picks, the most recent coming on Oct. 26, against Atlanta.

"I don't talk to the media a lot,'' Samuel noted. "I don't get as much recognition as anybody else, probably. Because I don't have my face in the news all the time. But being as how I only had three [interceptions] before the Pro Bowl voting, to still get voted in definitely says a lot. I'm definitely doing something right and getting my hands on the ball. And I've got respect from other teams.''

Dawkins said he never felt he was playing all that poorly, even when much was made of high-profile mistakes, such as passes caught at his expense in the 41-37 loss at Dallas in Week 2.

"I felt I was playing decent ball,'' said Dawkins, who tied his late friend and religious mentor, Reggie White, as the only Eagles (other than Bednarik) with seven Pro Bowl selections. "Obviously, there's plays I wish I could make, that I didn't make, for whatever reason . . . that's always been a part of football. I've always had plays I didn't make . . . Because of my age, people are going to point out every negative thing . . . People who know me, who watch the plays and break down the film, understand that those one or two plays are not the telling sign of a player. You have to look at the whole scope of what that player brings to the table. I've been blessed to play this game at a high level, and I'm still playing the game at a high level.''

But Dawkins certainly has upped his level, defensive coordinator Jim Johnson seemingly changing his role a little, bringing him closer to the line of scrimmage, leaving him alone in deep coverage less.

"I feel I've played a pretty good stint, these last eight games or so,'' said Dawkins, who does not have a contract beyond this season. "To be able to put a certain brand of ball on the field and be an impact player for this defense, whether it be taking on pulling guards sometimes, stuffing the run, or being in the back, delivering big hits, sending messages, or lining up and blitzing off corners, it's a place I feel comfortable being in, healthy.''

Dawkins, who has played with Eagles Pro Bowlers such as Troy Vincent, Bobby Taylor and Lito Sheppard, gave an insight into Samuel's playmaking prowess: "I've never played with someone who has the closing speed that he has. His anticipation, once he decides to go, I've never seen anybody be able to get in position to make picks like he does.''

This didn't figure to be a big Pro Bowl year for the Eagles. They aren't at the top of the standings. Brian Westbrook has struggled with injury, Donovan McNabb was briefly benched last month, and Trent Cole, though playing as fiercely as ever, has only eight sacks. Other standouts, such a strong safety Quintin Mikell, perhaps lack the leaguewide reputation that helps an honored veteran such as Dawkins.

But Cole got in as an alternate last season, and a source close to the situation confirmed that the Birds did have some players chosen as alternates this time, though their names were not announced.

Birdseed

Andy Reid

confirmed that wide receiver

Hank Baskett

did suffer a sprained MCL in Monday night's win, and Reid expressed concern over whether Baskett would be able to play Sunday at Washington, but Baskett said he thought he'd be OK . . . Reid said he wasn't worried about the performance of backup quarterback

Kevin Kolb,

who was hit as he threw and got picked off for the Browns' only touchdown, in a mopup role . . . Reid reiterated that he talks to Vikings coach (and former Eagles offensive coordinator)

Brad Childress

every week, so yes, they probably will discuss how to beat the Falcons. Should Childress manage to do that Sunday at home, the Eagles will control their own playoff destiny. You know Andy's going to tell Brad to run the ball . . . Reid said

Donovan McNabb's

refocusing after being benched last month "tells you about the kid, what a great person he is, great guy, and what a great football player he is.'' *

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