TREES AND CAROLS, menorahs and dreidels, the airing of grievances and feats of strength - the holiday traditions have been observed as always. There is comfort in the rituals.

We are left now with the Eagles, the Eagles and the Cowboys and the final search for meaning.

The problem is that the answers are not likely to be contained in the upcoming 60 minutes. If the game itself is meaningful to the Eagles, it will be an almost off-the-charts upset. There is every reason to believe that the Eagles will be playing for nothing more than pride and the chance to ruin the Cowboys' winter. Which is something, but . . .

Given that, will it matter what happens? Will it matter to Donovan McNabb and his future as the Eagles' quarterback? Will it matter to Andy Reid and his future as the Eagles' coach/king of all football? Will it matter to Jon Runyan and Tra Thomas, the veteran offensive tackles with the expiring contracts? Will it matter to Brian Dawkins, the venerated safety, who is in the same contractual position?

Can somebody salvage something that was already gone? Can somebody lose something that was already decided?

Quick answer: Probably not.

The men of the front office - specifically, owner Jeffrey Lurie and club president Joe Banner - have kept their counsel through this long, cold, erratic season. Both have declined interview requests in recent weeks. In the past, Banner has said that the worst thing a team can do is make decisions in the heat of the moment. So there's that. Last year, though, they came out during the season and said that McNabb would not be jettisoned, a statement that has not yet been repeated this fall. So there's that, too.

Whatever, it's hard to believe that one game here can make a difference. Reid could run the ball 50 times or 15 and the track record is the track record. McNabb could beat the Cowboys in the last 2 minutes or he could throw a killer interception to lose it and the history is the history.

One game, one play . . . no, not now, not anymore.

It is simpler than that, really. The question Lurie and Banner need to resolve is not contained in the difference between 9-6-1 and 8-7-1, or in 2 straight years out of the playoffs. Neither is it a question of how tired they are right now, or how tired the fan base is right now - because we know the answer to both of them. Everyone is exhausted.

To look in the rearview mirror is to make the wrong decision. To look forward is the only way to make the right call.

Simply: Can Reid and/or McNabb turn this around?

Realistically, this team should be 10-5 right now, going into its final game of the season. You can what-if every loss on the schedule - every NFL team can, because so many games in the league are so close - but it seems fair to say that they should not have lost to the Bears and they should not have tied the Bengals.

In the Bears game, Reid's roster was exposed in the absence of Westbrook (Tony Hunt, no real fullback, no blocking tight end). In the Bengals game, McNabb was erratic and overused (with Westbrook limping again). Those are two games, two strands in a tangled knot.

For many fans around here, the tone and tenor of the criticism - especially of Reid but partly of McNabb, too - would not be a lot different at 10-5 than it is at 8-6-1. The same issues would be in place. The same wild-card spot would maybe be the result. The same shortage of game-changing players on both sides of the ball would be true.

To fixate on this year, or this specific game, would be wrong. So, again, look forward and ask:

* Is it reasonable to expect a championship with Reid still picking the players?

* Is it reasonable to expect a championship with Reid employing the same pass-first philosophy?

* Is it reasonable to expect a championship with McNabb at quarterback?

That's it. Forget anything else. The defense needs to create more turnovers and more overall havoc, but it's solid and improving. The special teams are better this year but kind of erratic. The players still play hard for Reid. As good citizens go, this a good locker room that way. But that isn't worth discussion.

It is those three questions. The rest of this, including Sunday afternoon against the Cowboys, is just a distraction. *

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