THEY CHEERED Brian Dawkins at the start and at the end and jeered Macho Harris somewhere in between. From the flip Dawkins did as he entered his old stomping ground to the emotional hugs with former teammates, coaches and Eagles personnel that followed, the 30-27 victory over the Broncos yesterday met the exhaustive expectations built over the last 10 months, from that black day when the unthinkable became the undeniable and the player who most embodied this team's self-image ended up in a strange-looking jersey in a galaxy far, far away.

"Real, real nerve-racking," Dawkins called his return to Philadelphia. "I've been in some big games before, but trying to control my emotions was real tough. And we needed this game very badly."

Eagles owner Jeffrey Lurie said this week that Dawkins would always be an Eagle and dodged questions about whether he endorsed the rigid negotiating posture that sent Dawkins seeking a better deal with the Broncos last February. And while everyone from Andy Reid to Sheldon Brown handled the impending homecoming last week with talk about the business of the National Football League, it should be noted that after hugging every Eagle and some of them twice or thrice, Brian Dawkins did not get warm and fuzzy with Lurie as the two passed in a narrow hallway outside the Eagles' locker room.

There was, instead, a polite nod as the owner smiled and patted him on the back. It contrasted spectacularly the scenes played out repeatedly before and after - on the field first, then after Dawkins showered and dressed unusually quickly, set a time record for his postgame thoughts, and hoofed it down to his old locker room for more extended hugs than those afforded on the field.

"Those are my brothers," he said, the familiar crack of emotion in his voice. "We went to battle for many, many years. We built something there."

They built a defense capable of reaching big games perennially, winning some, just missing on some big ones. It's the way it has been for his new team this season, the just-missing part. Denver opened the season with six straight victories, but has won just twice since and now needs a win over Kansas City next weekend for even a shot at the playoffs.

Dawkins was hired at such a high price to avoid such slides, to win games like yesterday's. And while his licks on Brian Westbrook were a helluva concussion test, the truth on this day is that he was schooled more than he taught.

His errors, while not as obvious as Harris', were costly just the same. A third-down sack that would have forced a punt was wiped out when Dawkins was called for illegal contact with Brent Celek. A short pass that Celek rumbled into 28 yards came after LeSean McCoy dumped Dawkins as he blitzed. Celek's 47-yard touchdown reception that pushed the Eagles' lead to 17-7 was possible because Dawkins followed Jeremy Maclin across the middle, leaving the tight end wide open down the right sideline.

"Too many mistakes," he said. "Early on we weren't making these mistakes. We're doing the wrong kind of things at the wrong time of the year."

The Eagles led at the half, 20-7. "But they easily could have laid down," Brown said. "You know they fought for him. At halftime, I can imagine the speech."

Not to let the truth foil a good story line, but the Eagles' lead stretched to 27-10 midway through the third quarter before a series of miscues by Harris brought Denver back in a way no speech could.

A split-second after Asante Samuel notched his ninth pick near the Eagles' goal line, Harris hammered Broncos intended receiver Tony Scheffler. Scheffler laid on the sideline for a few seconds like an aggrieved World Cup striker before rejoining the play. Harris' hit - although in the field of play and below the helmet - received an unnecessary-roughness penalty. Samuel's return to the Eagles' 48 was called back to the 1-yard line, and three plays later, Sav Rocca punted from his end zone and Denver had the ball on the Birds' 25-yard line. Five plays after that, Kyle Orton found another former Eagle, Jabar Gaffney, for a 7-yard touchdown and, well, game on!

Harris fumbled the kickoff, giving the Broncos another short field and another too-easy touchdown. Two big, bad rookie mistakes, 14 points - poor Macho emphasized, in a way none of us could last spring, how arrogantly foolish Joe Banner's negotiating tact with Dawkins had been.

The rookie from Virginia Tech later fumbled another kickoff, but this one was recovered by Victor Abiamiri. Harris, whom Brown playfully called an "intern," has made some big plays this season and will undoubtedly make many more. But like any new defensive back, the so-called learning curve can brutalize a team's chance of winning at times.

Try and remember what Quintin Mikell looked like in his first year.

Or Sheldon Brown.

Brown does. "He taught me how to play the game the right way," Brown said of Dawkins. Yesterday, after hammering Denver's Brandon Marshall to the ground after a short pass, the pupil even bounced to his feet and pointed at Dawkins on the sideline.

"You don't get glory for that but if you punish him, you set the tempo and the tone and it affects the game," Brown said. "When I pointed to him, it was to give him respect for what he showed me over the years."

Brown later called Dawkins "a father figure to me." Westbrook called him "a role model" and Donovan McNabb, whose entire family embraced Dawkins afterward, called him "a brother."

Dawkins understood all this. It's why he trekked into the Eagles' locker room afterward for some private moments with Andy Reid. It's why he didn't warm up with the Broncos before the game, why the first sighting of him came when he was the last member of Denver's defense to be introduced before the game.

"He used to do that here," Brown said. "If he had tried to come out and warm up before the game, he would have had to take an IV."

He waited for the introductions instead. "So I could have everything I needed to have for my teammates." And when that wasn't quite enough, he hugged and shook hands and started running toward his locker room. As the roar of the crowd escalated, he stopped once, then again, pointing upward to each side.

A salute to you. A farewell maybe, too.

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