NOBODY IN Lincoln Financial Field felt worse than Jason Avant.

The Eagles receiver was standing alone in the end zone when Michael Vick threw a perfect pass to the bread basket.

The only way the Eagles don't score a touchdown and take a commanding early lead over the New York Giants was if Avant impossibly dropped the ball.

The impossible happened.

But as Avant shook his head in disbelief, Eagles tight end Brent Celek ran up to him and patted him on the shoulder as if to say, "Don't worry, bro, we've got your back."

From the first day of training camp, Eagles coach Andy Reid talked about his interest in seeing how his young team would grow and establish an identity throughout the upcoming NFL season.

This was going to be an unfamiliar adventure for Reid because for the better part of a decade the Eagles had a firm identity set by a veteran core of players.

Ten games into the season, the Eagles have a surprising 7-3 record and sit on top of the NFC East Division.

They've been through a couple of quarterback changes; offensive-line and defensive lapses; injuries to key performers.

Yet they've shown consistent growth in resiliency and developed a character that has them presently ranked with the elite teams in the league.

If the playoffs started today, the Birds would be the second seed in the NFC behind the Atlanta Falcons - a team they handily beat earlier this season.

Personally, I pegged the Eagles for a losing season - one that would hopefully be characterized by consistent maturation and growth for future success.

Thus far, the Eagles have done all of that - well, except for the losing part.

"The neat thing there is that I think these guys really enjoy being around each other," Reid said the day after the Eagles beat the New York Giants, 27-17, in a big NFC East game. "That's the way they play. There is a lot of energy.

"I don't know a better term than to say there is a lot of energy throughout the game - through the good and the bad. Everybody is helping each other out, and you need that."

For the record, Avant bounced back with two catches in the second half for 39 yards and caught a crucial two-point conversion pass that put the Eagles up 24-17 with just under 4 1/2 minutes remaining in the game.

That kind of character development has been the signature of this team so far.

It can be something as simple as Celek encouraging Avant to shake off a mistake or something as big as Vick and Kevin Kolb putting their egos aside during what had to be a difficult mental game of musical quarterbacks and focusing only on the games at hand.

If you think about it, it's hard to imagine a team being 7-3 with Vick having started six games and Kolb starting four.

You never know what's going to happen with a team as young as the Eagles.

Your hope is that they can learn from the inevitable growing pains they will experience early, stay above the water line through the really tough times and emerge as a strong cohesive unit down the stretch run.

That's been the exact path the Eagles have taken.

After the fourth game of the season, Eagles defensive coordinator Sean McDermott questioned his players' toughness after they were gashed by an "average" rushing attack in a 17-12 loss to the Washington Redskins.

At the time, the Eagles were ranked 27th in the NFL in rushing defense.

After holding a Giants team that was ranked fifth in rushing offense to 61 yards, the Birds are now ranked eighth overall in rushing defense.

"We made some changes in personnel, but I'll tell you it's a good thing right there," Reid said. "It's physical play. I think the guys are in the right mind-set."

For a lot of games this season, the Eagles offense has carried the load. On Sunday with the offense struggling, the defense jumped to the forefront.

"That's how it works," Reid said. "When I say they get along, that's a great thing right there.

"If the offense isn't doing well, the defense picks them up on the sidelines and in their play - and vice versa.

"Everything isn't going to be roses, but you've got to fight through those barriers there. These guys have a very aggressive approach."

Rebuilding, retooling, reloading isn't an exact science.

Much of it is dependent on the mental makeup of the players involved.

Some teams take years to develop a winning attitude. The Eagles have done it in 10 games.

"Everybody is helping each other out," Reid said. "That's the fun part for coaches to see.

"Listen, we've got so much more to improve on," he continued. "We have to stay focused, but it starts with that energy there." *

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