When Andy Reid and the Eagles look over their 16-game schedule, they break it into quarters - dividing a long grind into manageable chunks.

The third quarter was perhaps the most grueling, with all four games coming within 18 days, but it ultimately was successful and has the Eagles well-positioned for the crucial closing stretch.

"The one thing you do look at is that you're going into the fourth quarter and you're within striking distance," Reid said Friday after the Eagles completed a 3-1 push that assures them of at least a share of the NFC East lead and a long rest before critical road dates at the Dallas Cowboys and New York Giants in their next two games.

"We played a lot of games here in a short period of time, and we played some teams that had extended time to get ready for us and were fresh," Reid said. "It looked like it helped some of the other teams, so I welcome it right now."

Reid's teams typically excel as the season winds down and the playoff race intensifies. The coach is 33-13 in December, a .717 winning percentage.

Of the three teams remaining on the 2010 slate, only the Giants, who will host the Eagles on Dec. 19, have a winning record and real playoff hopes. The Minnesota Vikings, whom the Eagles will host on Dec. 26, are talented but have been all but eliminated from playoff contention.

The Cowboys, whom the Eagles play twice, have improved after a coaching change, but they still have fallen far short of expectations and are out of the playoff hunt.

If the Eagles make the playoffs, their last four games will be seen as a time when they made a significant move.

A dominant Monday night win Nov. 15 in Washington put the Eagles in the discussion among the top teams in the conference. A gritty win over the Giants six days later confirmed it. The Eagles stumbled in Chicago last Sunday, missing a chance to keep firm control of the NFC East, but their rebound Thursday means they still control their destiny.

"Right now, our goal is to win the division and make the playoffs, and we've got to take that one game at a time," tight end Brent Celek said. "These last four games that we have are extremely tough. We're going to have to be focused and pay attention to details to win these games."

Only three NFC teams - the Falcons, Saints, and Bears - have matched or exceeded the Eagles' eight wins, though the Birds have played one more game than every other team in the conference. The Giants, Packers, and Buccaneers can match the Eagles' record with wins Sunday.

So there's still a seven-team pack jockeying for five playoff spots, with the final postseason bid going to whoever wins the dreary NFC West.

And the Eagles still have flaws that can cause worry - a defense giving up big point totals, an offensive line that has quarterback Michael Vick scrambling for safety.

But with six wins in their last eight games, the Eagles have moved near the front of the NFC race. Thanks to a great third quarter of the season, their final four games are full of meaning and opportunity.

Contact staff writer Jonathan Tamari at 215-854-5214 or jtamari@phillynews.com.
Staff writer Jeff McLane contributed to this article.