HE STOOD OUTSIDE the big, green double doors at one end of the Eagles' locker room at Lincoln Financial Field "Training room," says the sign. It is one of the team's secret places, one of many. It is where Andy Reid was headed.

All around him, the improbability of the moment was manifesting itself in all of the time-honored ways: shouting, embracing, laughter, wonder. Reid's team was going to the playoffs after all. A week earlier, the Eagles had seemingly drop-kicked their destiny into oblivion with a loss to the Washington Redskins. This day, somehow, it boomeranged back into their suddenly sure hands.

Washington: the game where Reid refused to run the ball again, where time management was an issue, where the team played losing football in a huge spot. It was just a debacle. It had to be disheartening for an organization that believes it does things correctly. It looked like a group that was missing something at its core - except to

Reid. Asked the question, his voice cracked in reply. The words were barely audible.

Missing something?

Reid said, "I didn't feel that way. I just didn't."

But that is how history would have written it had the Bucs not blown a lead and lost to the Raiders, and had the Bears not blown a lead and lost to the Texans, and had the Eagles not trampled the Cowboys, 44-6. Steve Mizerak, the old trick-shot pool player, could not have banked in this one in his dreams, yet it happened. Now the Eagles will travel to Minnesota for a wild-card game next Sunday.

Quarterback Donovan McNabb, who had been written off and benched just a few weeks ago, played a great game. Correll Buckhalter returned unexpectedly from the witness protection program and delivered. The defense, just voracious at this point, battered Cowboys quarterback Tony Romo.

Redemption does not begin to describe what happened - for these players and for this coach, who has been fired and fileted during the Eagles' maddening display of inconsistency this season.

Standing there, I asked Reid if he wanted to give anyone the finger. He shook his head and laughed.

"Here's what you have: You have great passion in Philadelphia," Reid said. "That's a hard thing and [the media] has to deal with it. Philadelphia is not always game-to-game - sometimes it's play-to-play. That's what makes it so special. But with that comes the questions. I understand that. I understand the situation. I understand how it works out."

The doors to the training room swung open and shut, quickly. It is not a public place. This is a franchise that can keep a secret, and the coach is first among them. Reid will never let you know how much the criticism bothers him. He will never let you in.

Whether or not he questioned himself at any point this year, the man will not say. At some of his press conferences, he can come off as smug. At other times, he is simply impenetrable. Some fans think the answer is sharper daggers, but they don't get it.

In a big group or one-on-one, the answers - and the self-confidence - are the same. Yesterday, the question was if he ever wondered this year, if he ever doubted himself.

Reid paused, but just for a second.

"I try to do what I know," he said. "I stick with that and hopefully that's good enough."

People who admire him see this as the man's greatest strength. People who want him gone see this as the man's greatest weakness. We are talking about the exact same quality. The people who like him will say that this dogged persistence is what pulled the Eagles through their latest predicament. The people who don't like him will say that this same quality, seen as stubbornness, is what got them into the predicament in the first place.

Around and around it will go - the arguments, all of it. It seems fitting, on such a wondrous day for the Eagles, that this is where things remain. The truth - so unlike a few weeks ago, or a few hours ago - is that, in the end, Andy Reid's football team is in the playoffs again, favored in its wild-card game against the Vikings.

"I don't usually like to rely on other people," Reid said, on a day when his team did just that. And with that, he headed through the swinging double doors. *

Send e-mail to hofmanr@phillynews.com, or read his blog, The Idle Rich, at http://go.philly.com/theidlerich.

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