IF THEIR OFFENSE really desperately needed Brian Westbrook in order to function, the Eagles wouldn't be 7-1 without the franchise running back this season.

But if Westbrook makes it back onto the field this week against Brian Dawkins and the Broncos, as expected, the Birds will gain valuable experience, and a stronger receiving option than either rookie running back LeSean McCoy or veteran fullback Leonard Weaver has been in Westbrook's absence, Weaver's one-handed, 59-yard catch and run against the Falcons a few weeks ago notwithstanding.

From what Andy Reid seemed to be saying yesterday, we probably can expect a limited role for Westbrook on Sunday, assuming he receives the expected clearance and navigates the week of practice with no further concussion problems.

Reid was asked several questions yesterday about fitting Westbrook back into the mix. The Nov. 15 game at San Diego, which Westbrook left when he suffered his second concussion, is his only game action since the first concussion, Oct. 26 at Washington.

"My feeling, when you have great players, is that helps you a little bit more," Reid observed. "We're not going to get worse with Brian Westbrook coming back. He adds to that flexibility."

Asked if fitting Westbrook into a diverse, well-functioning offense would be a challenge, Reid allowed that it would.

"That's a good challenge to have, though. We can do that," Reid said.

"I think he'll be pretty fresh. He'll have fresh legs out there. Obviously he's not going to play the whole game. [We will] make sure we keep track of how many plays he plays, if it comes down to that."

Westbrook was just getting sharp, coming back from his extended ankle problems, when the concussion saga began. It's a lot to expect that he will look like the 2007 Westbrook this week, but if he stays healthy, it might not be too much to expect that he could add a lethal counterpunch for the playoffs.

One thing Reid won't have to worry about is resentment. McCoy is careful to talk every week about how this is Westbrook's team, and he is just filling in. Weaver, asked about Westbrook's return after his career-high 17-carry performance Sunday against the 49ers, said:

"If that means me going back to special teams, or blocking, whatever it may be, I'm going to do it. The only thing that matters is, we're in the playoffs."

Developing story lines

* On that early fourth-and-1 gamble from his own 29, Andy Reid knew he only needed a few inches. I don't have a huge problem with going for it there - a good team ought to be able to get a few inches, anywhere on the field, really. Problem was, reserve tight end Alex Smith came in motion toward the middle, as an extra blocker, then ended up trying to block the same guy left tackle Jason Peters had slid inside to take out. That left ex-Eagles linebacker Takeo Spikes untouched, coming straight up the middle, and Spikes was on Leonard Weaver before Weaver even got to the line. A bigger concern than the decision to go for it is that we're 14 games into the season and the Birds still can't consistently execute in such a spot. They've been better in short yardage lately, but that was ugly, the play after Michael Vick suffered a thigh bruise failing to pick up third-and-1.

* Donovan McNabb has been really reluctant to take off ever since he suffered that broken rib running for a touchdown in the season opener. Against the 49ers, McNabb scored his first rushing touchdown since that day, and seemed pretty frisky in general, while not being sacked even once. McNabb had a 26-yard ramble called back by a holding penalty on Todd Herremans.

* Tracy White's pick was his first interception in 92 career games with Seattle, Jacksonville, Green Bay and the Eagles. Reid noted yesterday that the Birds brought in White (generously listed at 6-foot, 230) to play special teams last season, but his speed has turned out to be an asset in pass coverage. "Tracy told me when he got here, 'You know I can play linebacker too, if you give me a chance.' We've worked him into some of our nickel packages, and he's obviously a good athlete, very fast. He's not the biggest guy in the world, but he's fast and has athletic ability," Reid said.

Who knew?

That Alex Smith would complete as many passes to the Eagles (three) as he would to standout tight end Vernon Davis?

Obscure stat

The Eagles need 17 points to break the franchise single-season scoring record they set last year - when they got 14 touchdowns from Brian Westbrook, 12 more than Westbrook has scored this season.

Extra point

There was an Andy Reid shoulder-bump Sunday, again involving DeSean Jackson, though it hasn't gotten nearly as much attention as last week's touchdown celebration.

I wish I'd asked the coach about it yesterday, but I didn't know it had happened until I was watching a replay, long after Reid's news conference. I wanted to see if I was mistaken in thinking San Francisco's Dashon Goldson was pretty far out of bounds when he slung down DJax on the Eagles' sideline, following that fourth-quarter end-around.

The answer to my question was "yes." Goldson made contact with Jackson only a foot or 2 out of bounds, not really a foul, but then he wrapped up and dumped the wideout way, way out of bounds. Maybe Goldson avoided a yellow flag by helping No. 10 to his feet.

The really interesting part of the replay, though, comes just after all that.

As Jackson and Goldson walk back to the field, side judge Greg Meyer with them, Reid turns toward Meyer to voice his displeasure over the lack of a call. And then - I'm not making this up, find the clip and watch for yourself - as Goldson passes, Big Red shifts his weight and sticks his right shoulder into the safety, hard, Reid looking past Goldson to Meyer, all the while.

Moral of the story: Don't mess with papa bear's most productive cub.