It's one thing when a defense has been duped by an unexpected scheme or beaten for a touchdown by some sleight of hand - a trick play that has "gotcha" written all over it.

It's quite another matter when a defense has been physically whipped by the grunts on the offensive line blowing open holes for running backs.

That gets down to football's macho core, and defenders are loath to concede it when it happens.

"It hurts your pride," Eagles linebacker Chris Gocong said yesterday. "It's hard to admit, but . . ."

In their division losses to Washington and the Giants this season, the Eagles lost most of the man-to-man battles along the line of scrimmage. As a result, the Redskins rolled through them for 203 yards rushing, and the Giants battered them for 219 yards on the ground.

"I think the Giants and the Redskins were more physical than us the first time we played them," defensive coordinator Jim Johnson said.

Embarrassment over the way the Giants had beaten them helped fuel the Eagles in their rematch two weeks ago. Now the Eagles are preparing to settle a score with the Redskins on Sunday at Washington. It's a score they probably must settle to sneak into a wild-card spot.

"They took it to us the first game," safety Quintin Mikell said. "Pretty much the whole third quarter they ran up and down the field on us. So they came, and they brought it to us.

"This time, we'll be aware of that and not let it happen again. I think the way we've been playing lately, it's kind of like a result of what happened in that game. We've slowly gotten back to the way we played at the beginning of the season, so now it's 'OK, we're ready for that stuff now.' "

In the second game against the Giants, the Eagles held them to 88 yards on 24 carries and won, 20-14. Partly because the Giants played without receiver Plaxico Burress, the Eagles brought Mikell up as an extra defender against the run and left the cornerbacks in single coverage.

On Sunday, the Redskins will be missing Chris Samuels, the six-time Pro Bowl left tackle, who opened running lanes for Clinton Portis, the NFL's third-leading rusher. Samuels was placed on injured reserve this month with a torn right triceps. Eagles defensive end Trent Cole has called Samuels one of the two toughest tackles he has faced.

"A Pro Bowl player, you're going to miss him, no doubt," Johnson said. "He's probably one of the better tackles in the NFL. There's a little bit of a drop-off."

Said Gocong, "Maybe they won't run to the left as much. Who knows?"

Aside from the loss of Samuels, Portis has been playing with an assortment of injuries, one to his left knee and the most recent to his neck. In the last three games he gained only 131 yards on 47 carries.

The Eagles have a three-game winning streak, and the defense, as it showed against the Giants, seems better equipped to deal with power-running teams. For one thing, the defense is healthy, and Johnson has enough quality depth on the line to rotate ends and tackles and keep them fresh.

Three defenders who didn't factor in the Oct. 5 Redskins game - end Victor Abiamiri, linebacker Akeem Jordan, and cornerback Joselio Hanson - are getting a lot of playing time and have made the defense more physical.

"People don't realize, but he has done a really good job in the nickel situations," Johnson said of Abiamiri. "He's getting a push inside."

The Eagles allowed an average of 57 yards on the ground in the last three games after giving up an average of 100 in the first 11.

"We've been playing well and we've been playing physical, and I think we're going to continue that this week," Mikell said. "We've been saying for a long time we're deep across the board. We have guys who have gotten a chance to play and taken advantage of it. I'm really happy with the way things are going right now. Hopefully, we'll keep it going."

When it was suggested that Washington had pushed the Eagles around the last time, Mikell took mild offense.

"I don't think we've ever been pushed around," he said. "I just think the first time we played them maybe we were just a little tired. I don't know. But we weren't as physical as we have been and can be. The main thing is come out and attack, and that's something we're going to do this time."

As Gocong said, it's not easy to admit when an opponent has been physically superior. But it grabs your attention so you do all you can to make certain it doesn't happen again.

Bob Brookover's Eagles blog: