THE EAGLES' most important defensive player was going to get healthy. That was what was so great about that 9-day break between games, after the Birds outlasted Houston a week ago last night.

Then Asante Samuel left the NovaCare indoor practice facility after watching a tiny sliver of yesterday's workout, throwing into doubt his return for Sunday night's game at Dallas. If Samuel can't practice today, he is unlikely to play, and that could make a huge difference in a key divisional matchup as the Birds jostle among a crowded playoff field for first place in the NFC East.

"He might try to come out there [today]. We'll see. If not, we've got to pick it up again, try to get this win, because it's a huge game," said Joselio Hanson, who has subbed for Samuel at cornerback in the base defense the past two games. Samuel suffered an MCL sprain Nov. 21 against the Giants. "I thought he would [practice yesterday]. Freak injuries, you just never know."

Hanson said Samuel told him "he was feeling a lot better than last week. [Wednesday] he looked a lot better . . . It's just all about when he's ready to go full-go. You don't want to go out there when you're not 100 percent and set yourself back another week. He doesn't want to miss the next three games because he went out there too early."

Certainly, the Eagles need the NFL's interception leader full-strength to make any sort of postseason run, but losing to the rejuvenated Cowboys could seriously damage their chance to make the postseason.

"It's a tough challenge, man. Great team, great players. It's going to be interesting," Hanson said.

When the Birds reconvened Wednesday, coach Andy Reid was asked about the status of Samuel and defensive end Juqua Parker, who has missed the last two games with a hip flexor problem.

"Well, I think they're ready to go," Reid said. "We'll see. This is the first time that they've got right back together and practiced here. They feel good, and we'll just see how they do in practice."

Parker has done just fine, listed as a full practice participant both days. Samuel was a limited participant Wednesday, then did not practice yesterday. Reid later told a few reporters that Samuel was sore, and that he still hopes the Pro Bowl corner can play Sunday.

Defensive coordinator Sean McDermott called the anticipated return of Samuel "huge" when McDermott spoke to reporters yesterday before practice.

"He's a very good player, very good player. A Pro Bowl corner. With Asante, though, comes that leadership, that veteran leadership, that experience," McDermott said. "When things get out of kilter, as they do in the ups and downs of a game, having a veteran player at that corner certainly helps to nail things down. We look forward to having him back."

Rookie Trevard Lindley has been playing outside in nickel, with Hanson moving inside, where he plays when Samuel is healthy.

"I thought he was going to come back this week, but I guess he's not, so I'll be in the rotation again, like the past 2 weeks," Lindley said. "I don't know how it affects things; we've been playing without him the past 2 weeks. We'll keep doing what we're doing and try to get a victory."

The other corner, Dimitri Patterson, said he wasn't surprised that Samuel wasn't at practice. "That's a tough injury he has," Patterson said. "He has to be smart. At the end of the day, it's about Sunday. As long as he's able to play on Sunday, he has to do whatever he feels he needs to do to get to the game."

But will Samuel be there Sunday?

"I don't know," Patterson said. "You never know how a guy truly feels. Guys are kind of secretive about that stuff. I hope he plays. If not, we'll go forth."

The Eagles missed Samuel terribly in a 31-26 loss at Chicago, the only game this season in which they failed to intercept a pass. Big plays, an issue for the defense all season, were pivotal. The 34-24 win over Houston was slightly better, at least at the beginning and the end, though the defense was on the field almost the entire third quarter as the Eagles blew a 20-10 halftime lead into a 24-20 deficit.

Patterson said missed tackles were the biggest problem in Chicago, and that, at least, got fixed against Houston.

"As far as the Texans, they had a couple big plays here and there, but at the end of the day, we tackled well, and we lined up and we stopped 'em when we needed to," Patterson said. "That was the biggest difference between the Bears and the Texans, we stopped 'em when we needed to, especially in the fourth quarter."

Several Eagles have reason to want to redeem themselves for the back-to-back losses at Dallas that killed the Eagles' 2009 season, none more than Samuel. The Cowboys targeted him for bubble screens, taking advantage of Samuel's less-than-stellar tackling. Samuel never acknowledged the problem, but McDermott has said Samuel worked diligently in the offseason to get stronger and to improve his technique. Samuel is having an exceptional year.

The Eagles had problems with screens in Chicago. McDermott said he certainly expects to see them Sunday, whether Samuel plays or not.

"That's been their philosophy," he said. "They are a screen team and a big screen team, and they do it extremely well. I wouldn't imagine that would change. We're going to continue to work on it, continue to practice it. Anytime you pressure like we pressure, sometimes people see that as a compensator for the blitzes."

Hanson said the key with screens is "once you recognize it, you have to attack it. Everybody has to run to the ball. They loved Dez Bryant at it this year, they ran a lot of screens" before the first-round rookie went down for the season Sunday with a fractured right fibula. Hanson noted that Miles Austin runs them proficiently as well, something Samuel discovered last season.

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