FOUR TIMES in their first five possessions Sunday, the Eagles found themselves inside the Atlanta 20-yard line.

In a perfect world, they would have walked away from those four red-zone trips with 28 points in their pocket. But the Eagles' red-zone offense has been anything but perfect this season.

They found the end zone just once on those four possessions, and shot themselves in the foot on the other three. On one, wide receiver Reggie Brown dropped a third-down pass from Donovan McNabb that would have given the Eagles a first down at the 10.

On another, tight end Alex Smith was flagged for a false-start penalty on a third-and-1. On the third one, a 15-yard scoring pass from McNabb to wide receiver Jason Avant was wiped out by a hands-to-the-face penalty on right guard Max Jean-Gilles.

Instead of 28 points, the Eagles had to settle for 13, which turned out to be no big deal against the fallen-and-can't-get-up Falcons, but could be a big deal this week against the Giants, or the week after that against the 49ers, or in January against a playoff opponent to be determined.

"As you go down the stretch, you've got to get touchdowns instead of field goals in the red zone," coach Andy Reid said. "That's the bottom line.

"You shoot yourself in the foot, you're not going to come out in the place you want to come out. We have to get that changed around."

The Eagles currently are 23rd in the league in red-zone production. They've converted just 17 of 36 trips inside their opponents' 20, or 47.2 percent, into touchdowns. In their last eight games, they're 10-for-24 (41.7).

Those of you who view the Eagles through rose-colored glasses will point out that despite their red-zone struggles, they still have won eight of 12 games and are tied for first place in the NFC East. You probably also will mention that they finished 22nd in red-zone offense last year (49.2 percent) and still managed to make it to the NFC Championship Game for the fifth time in 8 years.

While that's true, there's one significant difference between last year's Eagles and this year's. Last year, they had a healthy defense that finished fourth in the league in points allowed and gave up just 12.1 points per game in the seven games leading up to their NFC title-game loss to Arizona.

This year, the defense hasn't been healthy. Starters and key role players have missed more than 30 games due to injuries. Through 12 games, the Eagles are 13th in points allowed, even after holding the Falcons to seven points.

Bottom line: The offense absolutely, positively has to get better in the red zone or the Eagles can kiss their Super Bowl hopes goodbye.

The popular perception is that the Eagles never have been very good in the red zone. But that's not true. They haven't been very good inside the 20 the last three seasons (71-150, or 47.3 percent since '07). But before that, they actually were one of the league's better red-zone teams.

In the seven seasons from 2000 through 2006, the Eagles finished lower than 13th in red-zone offense just once (24th in '02). They finished third twice ('03 and '04), seventh (in '01), 10th ('06), 12th ('05) and 13th ('00). They were successful in the red zone when they had James Thrash playing wide receiver, and they were successful in the red zone when they had Terrell Owens. So why are they so bad in there now despite a receiving corps that is the best of the Reid era?

The good news for the Eagles is that most of their red-zone problems appear correctable. As was the case Sunday against the Falcons, they have stopped themselves inside the 20 more than they've been stopped by the other team. Penalties, dropped passes and poor execution have kept them out of the end zone more than anything else.

In their 27-24 win over the Redskins 2 weeks ago, they had a touchdown pass negated by an offensive pass interference call on tight end Brent Celek. A false-start penalty on right tackle Winston Justice on a third-and-5 at the 5 stalled another drive.

In their first game against the Giants, they had a McNabb touchdown pass to Celek wiped out by a holding penalty on left tackle Jason Peters. On another red-zone opportunity, the Eagles' offensive line let the Giants bat away two straight passes.

McNabb is having one of his better seasons. His 94.7 passer rating is the third highest of his career. His .610 completion percentage also is the third highest of his career. He's on pace to throw 20 TD passes for just the fifth time.

He's thrown just six interceptions, none in the red zone. But his red-zone completion percentage is poor. He's completed only 15 of 37 passes in the red zone in nine starts. Kevin Kolb is 9-for-19 in the red zone.

Wide receiver DeSean Jackson is one of the league's most dangerous big-play receivers. But he has been invisible this season in the red zone. While he's passed through it quite a bit on the way to six touchdown catches, not one of his 44 receptions has come inside the red zone.

Celek and Avant have been the Eagles' most productive red-zone receivers. Both have nine receptions. Five of Celek's red-zone catches have been for touchdowns and two of Avant's.

History says the line of demarcation for red-zone production as far as making it to the Super Bowl is 50 percent. Fourteen of the last 20 Super Bowl participants converted at least half of their trips inside the 20 into touchdowns.

The other six had dominant defenses that were able to compensate for their offense's red-zone failings. Five of those six finished in the top three in points allowed the season they went to the Super Bowl. The sixth, the '03 Panthers, finished 10th.

"[Our red-zone offense] is a concern," Reid said. "It's something we'll address and continue to address until we get it right. It's a concern."

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