THE EAGLES played yesterday like a team fixing to lose in the first round of the NFL playoffs; harsh but true.

They beat the Denver Broncos, 30-27 - yes, they did. Their gumption remains both impressive and unquestioned. They play hard. They play to the end. They have won six straight games, which isn't nothing. From a 5-4 record to today has been quite a trip, all things considered.

But if the Eagles play the same way once the playoffs begin, they will be one-and-done.

They had a 17-point lead over the Broncos with 17 minutes left to play and then they had a zero-point lead with 6 minutes left to play. They have lived on this edge far too often, in far too many games. That they have survived it has made them comfortable dealing with despair, and you do gain some strength from the whole process.

But they are going to have to produce a more consistent product or they are going home a lot earlier than their 11-4 record might suggest.

"I think that game builds character, but we have to get better," cornerback Sheldon Brown said. "We can't have those third-quarter lapses. We have to find a way to fix it, which we will. We have to continue to work hard in practice. But

six wins in a row don't mean anything. It really doesn't. The playoffs is a whole new season. When you're in the playoffs, you can't have those critical errors if you want to go to the Super Bowl."

Over the years, Brown has gained a

reputation as the toughest grader in the Eagles' locker room. He doesn't fall in love with his team too quickly and he doesn't blow an inordinate amount of smoke. He is one of the backbone guys for this defense, having a hell of a year, and he knows what wins playoff games and loses playoff games. He knows that blowing 17-point leads in the third quarter loses playoff games.

"It's tough, because we show signs of championship football," he said. "But then I'm thinking about that third

quarter . . . "

It began with a bad interception thrown by Donovan McNabb, who had an otherworldly first half. But then it just snowballed, with too many penalties and fumbled Macho Harris kickoffs and a

series of short fields upon which the

Broncos were able to capitalize.

"When you do things like that, it kind of gives the other team hope," Brown said. "If you go on the road and do something like that in the playoffs, that's not good. Then, we fought field position all through the fourth quarter. I think we have to play better consistently.

"I don't think it's fair to really grade

the team, but I do know we have a lot of areas to improve on."

The Eagles set a franchise scoring record yesterday with a game left to play. But the Eagles' defense has given up almost 21 points a game this season, by far the highest total of any Andy Reid team that has made the playoffs. Part of it surely is that scoring appears to be up throughout the league. You will search long and hard before you find the team with the truly great defense in the NFL this season.

The whole phenomenon has made

offenses greedier for more and more points. We have seen Reid go for it on a couple of odd fourth downs this season, I think, for that reason. So it was interesting yesterday, with 3:07 to go in a tie game, when he decided to punt when faced with fourth-and-1 at the Denver 49-yard line.

Afterward, Reid admitted it was a hard decision - but his defense fed off it and took it as an endorsement. And when the defense held, the sequence that led to

David Akers' game-winning field goal with 4 seconds remaining was put into motion.

"I'm glad that coach Reid punted because it showed confidence in us," safety Quintin Mikell said. "It showed confidence that we could get the job done and I think I'm really proud of that, that we stepped up as a defense."

Linebacker Moises Fokou said, "It just shows that he has great faith in our defense and in our d-coordinator, Sean McDermott. He believes in his athletes. For him to punt it and put the onus on his defense, it showed that he believes in us . . .

"We fight to the end. We've had a great run in December. We have a lot of great guys on this team. It shows out there on the field. Whether we're doing the right thing or not, we just fight. We're resilient."

Fokou is as young and wide-eyed as Sheldon Brown is veteran-tested. He was asked about this penchant for allowing

opponents to get back into games.

"It did get a little bit interesting in this game when they tied it up," Fokou said. "The one thing about it is, you can't panic. When you panic, that's how you make mistakes and things go bad. We just try to calm down, go back to our scheme and play the way we were playing in the first half."

Again, underlined: It is to their credit that the Eagles have wriggled out of so many spots this season. It was a big hurdle for this team, winning close ones at the end, and it has more than cleared it.

But against the better teams, it will not be realistic to expect to win a game like this.

"I think it definitely builds character, guys stepping up and making plays," Brown said. "When you revisit the situations, you understand how to overcome. I do understand that. But you have to have some type of killer instinct and not make it so close."

Or else.

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