The speculation, about Andy Reid and Donovan McNabb, began at midseason and built from there, built from a whisper to a roar, ebbed and then exploded again after last Sunday's loss at Washington. Through it all, Eagles owner Jeffrey Lurie remained silent, not making himself available after games and turning down a midweek interview request at one point.

"It's in every city in the country," Lurie said yesterday, in the Eagles' locker room, after his team somehow was given a chance to grab the NFC's final playoff spot and then did indeed grab it was a 44-6 win over the Dallas Cowboys.

"As long as I own the team, I would never speculate or talk during the season. These are marathons, these seasons. We're in the middle of it now, hopefully four games to go. That's the truth. It's the nature of sports today. Everyone's job, especially coaches and quarterbacks, are speculated about as soon as there are a couple of losses. You have to treat it like a marathon and be proud of the people you have and, hopefully, it takes you very far."

Lurie admitted to having no realistic hopes as yesterday began, especially after last Sunday's debacle against the Redskins. But then, from a lounge near his box at Lincoln Financial Field, he watched it all unfold on a wall of televisions: the Bucs lost and then the Bears lost, giving the Eagles their opening.

"We had some luck today that was not all of our doing," Lurie said. "There were other teams helping. But if you have high-character players, you at least have a chance not to play poorly in December. People stick together. The coaches deserve a lot of credit and the players deserve an amazing amount of credit, too . . .

"After the Washington loss, you had players really screaming, crying, very upset in the locker room and it was because we knew the odds were not great at that point. But the teams that were not playing as well in December lost today - that's really what happened. Chicago hung in today with that blocked field goal Monday night (against Green Bay), and Tampa Bay has not been having their best December, and, of course, Dallas.

"It's a lot of dedicated players that can come back from heart-wrenching losses. That, to me, is really what's defined this locker room and the coaches."

Then, Lurie said, "You have to recover from so much pain in some of these losses that most team, I think, would not have been there in December." *