GAME 14 IS UPON them and Andy Reid is selling. He is selling harder than a Democrat in Iowa on the eve of the caucuses. His team is 5-8 and Reid is selling to them, to the players, to a constituency of 53.

"Do I think the players are frustrated, and the coaches are frustrated? Sure, absolutely," Reid said, on the day after the eighth loss, this one by 16-13 to the New York Giants.

"On the other hand, you still have a chance," he said. "So, I don't see where the frustration would overrule your opportunity to achieve this week."

It is exhausting work, this spinning of sugar out of slop, but Reid did it yesterday with a smile. His team is headed to Dallas to play the 12-1 Cowboys; what opportunity. But we are into the Death With Dignity chapter in the NFL coaches' manual, and Reid was reading from it yesterday with a strong voice and a full heart.

"I can tell you how I feel," he said. "I don't know about the team yet, but I will. I don't think that I have a room full of guys that would hang their heads."

Coaches whose teams lose have problems. Coaches whose teams quit have bigger problems. Coaches whose teams quit while playing in front of the embattled starting quarterback, well, you know.

And Reid said, "This seems like a group that plays very hard and very aggressive and for the first week this season had an opportunity to play together. They'll have another opportunity to go out this week and get even better than what they were last week. I think that's a pretty positive thing to have going for you with three games left."

It must be exhausting, thinking up this stuff, but Reid seemed entirely comfortable. With their 5-8 record, the Eagles are in eighth place in a wild-card race where there are only two winners.

The calculations would kill even a master mathematician, but it seems as if at least a dozen specific things would have to go the right way for the Eagles to sneak into the thing. The odds would seem a tad long. I mean, when was the last time the Eagles went 12-for-12 in anything?

Speaking of which, the coach is in max-protect these days when it comes to Donovan McNabb. That is fine and to be expected. With what club president Joe Banner said last week about not being able to envision a scenario in which McNabb would not be the starting quarterback next season, it was only logical that Reid would say yesterday that McNabb would be the starting quarterback from here on out.

The choreography on all of this kabuki remains a mystery, and probably will for months.

In the meantime, despite the reality that McNabb hasn't wanted to throw the ball downfield with any consistency since the middle of last season, the coach is standing by his man. He swatted away a question yesterday about whether McNabb had been "abnormally cautious" against the Giants.

"I wouldn't say abnormally cautious," Reid said, starting slowly but then warming up to this latest defense. "I look at it the other way and say he's being smart with the football. Obviously, he's not throwing the interceptions that could have been devastating yesterday. He tried to get the ball to the quick throws as fast as he could get it to them and go from there."

This is not about McNabb, though. (Every column can't be, can it?) This is about the coach of a 5-8 football team, a coach who hoped for more, and how he is approaching the shank of a bad season. It has only really happened once, during the shambles of the Mike McMahon era that followed McNabb's sports-hernia injury and the Terrell Owens Follies in 2005. The club rolled over nicely back then, losing five of its last seven with McMahon (after losing McNabb's last three starts). But that season was such a circus that the finish line was a relief. The details hardly mattered.

This is a little bit different. The people who run this team at least have to be considering the question of dynamite at this point, although that would seem to be pretty extreme (and out of step with the organization's history). In any case, more than a few hard decisions await - and rolling over would really complicate things.

Asked about playing kids if/when even the math teachers abandon them, Reid went for the joke: "Well, they're all playing now, or at least they've had a chance to play. No, that's not where I'm at right now."

The manual says to play it exactly the way Reid is playing it. It doesn't really get interesting until the next page turns.

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