IT'S HARD for fans to not worry, at least a little.

So far in the playoffs, Brian Westbrook has carried 38 times for 74 yards. Yeah, he went 71 yards for a clinching touchdown with a screen pass at Minnesota, but otherwise he has not looked at all like the lethal weapon opposing defenses fear.

And, in a shocking development known only to everyone who has read a newspaper or listened to a sportscast lately, Westbrook hasn't practiced regularly in weeks, nursing along a chronically swollen knee that is always at least a little problem for him when the season's lumps begin to accumulate. Earlier in the season, a high ankle sprain lingered, but the knee seems to be the much bigger concern right now.

When Westbrook walked to his postgame news conference Sunday afternoon at Giants Stadium, he entered the room out of sight to most reporters, limping heavily. As he moved closer to the bright lights and the podium, Westbrook's stride straightened.

On his ESPN 950-AM radio show last night, Westbrook said his knee wasn't really any worse than it has been lately, that his problems Sunday had more to do with the Giants' defense than with his health.

"You see the way teams are playing us now . . . they're going to load the box, eight or nine guys. For us, it's encouraging . . . that other people step up and have good games," said Westbrook, who caught just two passes for 10 yards against the Giants. "That's the true mark of a team.

"We faced a very good defense . . . one of the better defensive lines in the league. I think they paid extra attention to me, which allowed opportunities for other players . . . I don't feel injuries have had much to do with my production. I think I'm going out there as healthy as I've been, for the most part [lately]."

Eagles coach Andy Reid told a questioner at Reid's day-after news conference that he feels Westbrook is healthy enough to be effective, as the Birds try to nail down only the third Super Bowl berth in franchise history when they travel to Arizona for Sunday's NFC Championship Game.

"Yeah, he can be [effective]," Reid said. He added that Correll Buckhalter, who is healthy, gained only 7 yards on five carries against New York, suggesting the problem had more to do with blocking. "Buck's [numbers] weren't up there where they needed to be either, so we have to go back and do some things. And listen, to their credit, they put an extra guy up in the box. They clearly wanted to take Westbrook out of the game, which I understand after the last game," the 20-14 Eagles win Dec. 7, in which Westbrook accounted for 203 yards from scrimmage. "You have to make the adjustments and utilize what the other team is going to present to you.''

It's interesting to note that Westbrook seemed to be in a similar spot just before Thanksgiving. Four days before the Eagles hosted the Cardinals, Westbrook was held to 39 yards on 14 carries in the Birds' only blowout loss of the season, the 36-7 Donovan McNabb benching game at Baltimore. Somehow Westbrook, on the short week, singed the Cardinals for 110 rushing yards, on 22 carries, and four touchdowns, two rushing and two receiving.

"I hope that trend or that happenstance happens again," Westbrook told program cohost Brian Seltzer last night. "I think this team has kind of turned the corner a little bit" when it comes to still being able to win, even if Westbrook doesn't post big numbers.

That obviously is still not the ideal, though.

"At some point - I told Correll Buckhalter this the other day - we're going to have a breakout game," Westbrook said. "Hopefully it's in these next two games, and then this team will be on a whole 'nother level."

Beware the Cards

Andy Reid was beating the respect-Arizona drum hard yesterday, which you have to expect in the wake of the Eagles' 48-20 Thanksgiving drubbing of the Cards. That game probably had a lot to do with making Arizona such an underdog in its first two playoff matchups.

Asked the biggest challenge about facing such a team, Reid said: "The best thing is to look at the team and the way they are playing. To be honest with you, I didn't think we got their best shot when they were here. Whether we got to this point or not, I didn't think that that was their best game. They had been playing good football and they were coming off a tough game, it was Thanksgiving Day, they had to travel all the way back here.

"This will be a different football team that we will see out there. I've had a chance to go through the four games now, the last four games of their season, and it's very obvious when you put on the film. Schematically, they are doing some different things. Way more aggressive from the defensive standpoint. Offensively, they've always been aggressive, but they've got the run game going. I think the offensive line is playing better. You already know they have a good coaching staff. I mean, they have one of the finest staffs around in schemes and so on, guys that know how to win games. They are playing very good football right now."


Andy Reid said wide receiver Jason Avant hyperextended his knee Sunday and "seems to be moving around OK today'' . . . Right tackle Jon Runyan, whose swollen knee seems to be getting worse, "is sore from the knee sprain,'' Reid said . . . Reid held the usual Monday meeting when the team returned to NovaCare Sunday night, so players could have 2 days off before starting preparations for Arizona. The Cards played Saturday, and will have the benefit of an extra day of rest. *

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