DONOVAN McNABB has done this before, happy and joking on the eve of the NFC Championship Game. It was true in 2002 and it was true in 2005 and it is true in 2009. It is not all that predictive about how things will turn out.

He will play well or not, and the Eagles will win the game or not, and it will not be about demeanor. It will not be about smiling through a bad moment or picking up a sideline telephone or jokes on the Wednesday before. We're all past that at this point, right?

Mind reading with this guy is pointless. Sentence parsing is a total waste of time. There is no predicting. The past is not prologue. The future is not destined. Sunday's game against the Arizona Cardinals will be 3 hours in isolation.

This isn't about mind-set. McNabb has always put on this face. He has a dual leadership strategy in these times, at least partly developed after losing in his first three trips to the conference finals: to say that the correct way to approach a championship game is the same way as a regular-season game, and to keep it light as the media crush crushes, to emphasize to his teammates that they will not see him sweat.

And so it was yesterday.

First: "You try to approach it as if it's just like a regular-season game, knowing the magnitude of it and knowing that it's a one-game season," he said.

Whether that is even conceivable is beside the point. That is the McNabb approach. He said the exact same thing in 2005 before that championship game, the one the Eagles won over Atlanta. In the leadup to that game, McNabb said, "Our approach is a lot different than in previous years. We're looking at this as just another game."

So there is that. Also, though, there is the light touch. It is a McNabb staple. As far back as the 2001 season, when the Eagles made their first trip to the conference final and lost to the St. Louis Rams, McNabb cracked a few times that week about the point spread (the Eagles were double-digit underdogs). As recently as 2005, he riffed about what he considers the absurdity of the running-quarterback label, suggesting at one point that on a potentially snowy field, "For a running quarterback, could be tough. It could be tough for [Atlanta's] Mike Vick. But for a throwing quarterback, it should be easier to sit in the pocket and get his footing."

Then McNabb paused and delivered the punch line:

"Y'all, the assembled media, liked that one, didn't you?" he said.

He tries to portray looseness, especially now. And so it was yesterday, when somebody said he was getting better with age.

"Fine like wine, baby," he said. "I think the copout at times is people saying, 'He's getting too old' or 'He's not able to do the things he was able to do back 5 years ago.' None of us can do the things we did 5 years ago, including you guys.

"Some of you are writing slower than you did 5 years ago. The stuff you talk about in the paper just doesn't make sense. Some of you are dressing kind of funny. But you know what? That's just something that people can just cling on to, and everyone goes with it. Then you have Vinny Testaverde coming in at 44 years old and winning a game. You have Kurt Warner being second for the MVP and putting up almost 5,000 yards passing. It's really in the position that you're in. Given the opportunity, some guys flourish and some guys don't.

"Thirty-two years old is really not old, that's almost at the prime of your career," he said. "Some of you guys sitting in here wish you were 32. I'll tell you about it. It's fun."

It is now. Two months ago, not so much - but it seems like longer ago than that, when McNabb's game disintegrated over a period of weeks, and he was benched at halftime of the game against Baltimore.

He has played the position with a greater command since the benching. He has bought more time in the pocket, thrown more accurately and converted a million third downs. He also has been more publicly demonstrative - pointing at his name on the back of his jersey in one game after a touchdown, picking up that telephone Sunday against the Giants, stuff like that.

People want to link performance with demeanor. Good luck with that. The demeanor might reflect the turnaround McNabb has accomplished in the last seven games. The jokes and the rest might reflect his vision of leadership at a crucial time.

But it means nothing Sunday. *

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