THE NOVACARE parking lot was filled beyond capacity yesterday.

That's what happens when you are one of the eight remaining teams in the NFL playoffs and your next opponent represents media central - the New York Giants.

Add in the fact that the Eagles and Giants are NFC East rivals meeting for the third time this season, with a berth in the NFC Championship Game at stake, and it was easy to see why there was so much creative parking going on.

Donovan McNabb has been on this amplified stage before.

He understands the deal. He knows how to play the game. He knows how to avoid the traps.

He knew the familiar questions that the unfamiliar faces were going to ask, and he was prepared.

And this time, when the Eagles quarterback tried to make light of some of the hot-button issues that invariably end up as bulletin-board material, he actually was funny.

Asked about how the Giants' defense had struggled down the stretch this season, McNabb said: "Sometimes during the course of the year, you don't play as well as you did early on. None of them got benched."

It was the self-deprecating kind of humor that epitomizes how relaxed, comfortable and focused this team appears to be heading into Sunday's showdown in Giants Stadium.

Heaven knows, there have been enough recent distractions concerning McNabb that a news conference such as this easily could have turned down a road no one in Midnight Green wanted - except McNabb managed it as efficiently as he has managed the Eagles' offense of late.

Bob and weave.

"It's hard to say," McNabb said when asked whether the Eagles' Dec. 7 victory at the Giants was the catalyst to their season-saving surge. "It could've been [beating Arizona on Thanksgiving night] or it could've been other games.

"I think just from those particular games, we all understood what we were capable of doing and doing it consistently in order to win."

OK, so what about his benching at halftime of the Baltimore Ravens game, McNabb was asked for the umpteenth time. Did it motivate him, or is it just coincidence that he's played lights-out football since then?

Thrust and parry.

"I think it's completely coincidental," McNabb said. "I don't think that played a factor into the way I'm playing now."

Could it have affected the performance of other Eagles?

"It may have," he responded. "But I can't speak for them, so you would have to ask them."

Well, what about ESPN reporting that, according to agent Fletcher Smith, part of the talks about your returning to the Eagles would concern the benching?

Move forward. Step back.

"My agent did not say that," McNabb said with a chuckle. "At this point, my only thing is focusing on football, focusing on this game and hopefully moving on."

Speaking of the Eagles moving on, the latest Sports Illustrated labeled the Birds as "dangerous."

How dangerous do you think you guys are?

"Well, they called the Cardinals dangerous, too. It's a regional copy," McNabb said, eliciting laughter from the audience. "Everybody is dangerous."

Do the Eagles view themselves as the Giants of this season - going into the playoffs hot and riding that streak all the way to a Super Bowl title?

Step to the right, slide to the left.

"To be honest with you, not really," McNabb said, ripping down all postings in the Giants locker room. "It's easy to say that at this point, but no.

"[The 2007 Giants] went on to win the Super Bowl. We're just in the second round. Maybe if we continue on, maybe. But I don't see that right now."

Like you, Giants quarterback Eli Manning received an awful lot of criticism and heat from the New York fans and media. Then he won the Super Bowl and it went away. Do you ever feel you won't get credit for anything you have accomplished unless you win the Super Bowl?

Rope-a-dope. Rope-a-dope.

"Y'all don't like that question," McNabb said with a laugh directed toward the regular Eagles media corps. "You know what, winning cures everything.

"I've had fun since I've been here, and I look to have more fun here. This is an exciting time. This is the playoffs. I'm looking forward to playing this weekend against the Giants and hopefully advancing.

"We're going to be ready to go. I don't worry about that outside stuff or anything of that nature. This is a fun time. Football is fun for me and for all of the guys in that locker room.

"At this point, it's just focusing on football. I'm focusing on winning this game and hopefully moving on." *

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