It used to be Troy Vincent, and then Brian Dawkins after that, and then Sheldon Brown after that. There seems to always be one Eagles defensive back who is the soothsayer. Take his temperature on any given week, and it will undoubtedly be an accurate reflection of how the team is doing and where it is going.

That player now is Quintin Mikell. He is level-headed, thoughtful, emotive and honest, and week after week this season, he has been espousing a narrative that is not to be missed.

Mikell is acutely aware that the Eagles are entering a critical stretch, beginning Sunday night at Dallas, that will either vault them into the playoffs with enviable momentum or send them crashing home before the postseason even begins. It is true that the NFC is wide open, but it is also true that because the NFC West winner will get an automatic berth into the playoffs, one very good team will be left out.

It could be the Packers, or the Bears, or the defending Super Bowl champion Saints, or the front-running Falcons, or the Giants. Or, it could be the Eagles, who are 8-4 and tied with the Giants atop the NFC East, with three division games remaining.

"This is where you want to be," Mikell said of the Eagles' position. "We're in control of our own destiny. At the end of everything you don't want to be sitting at home, you don't want to be waiting on somebody else to lose so you can get a chance.

"So right now, we control our own destiny. Everybody's focused, and this is where we want to be. We're not nervous or nothing like that. We're just ready to go out there and play."

The Eagles certainly control their own destiny, and there is a way they could wrap up the division next weekend. If they beat the Cowboys and the Giants lose at the Vikings on Sunday, the Eagles would win the NFC East in Week 15 with a win at New York. That is asking a lot, to win two divisional games on the road, but it is possible.

The more likely scenario is the Eagles will need to win three of their last four games. And if they want a first-round bye, they will more than likely have to win out, and that might not even do it.

Even though the defense has given up touchdowns in the red zone 78.8 percent of the time - the worst in the NFL - Mikell said that overall, the team's confidence is high heading into the stretch run because of the offensive firepower they have. The Eagles lead the NFL in total offense and, remarkably, lead the conference in rushing, thanks in large part to Michael Vick, who is second on the team with 467 rushing yards.

Besides, Mikell said, this Eagles team is better than the one that ended last season with back-to-back losses at Dallas. It is populated not with athletes who play football, but with football players, Mikell said. And there is a difference.

"We might not have the fastest or the strongest guys," Mikell said, "but we have football players, guys that are going to put their head in, smash people, get off blocks and just play football, play smart.

"I think this team is more explosive. We have more playmakers all across the board. Even though we're young, I feel like we're a smarter team and we're a team of actual football players. I think as long as we are studying like we should be and playing how we should be, there's nobody that can beat us."

Those are strong words, given that four teams have beaten the Eagles this season and the defense is giving up 23.4 points a game. But with four games to play, it is true that the players in the locker room feel like they are unbeatable. It is part of their collective personality that has formed as the weeks have gone on.

Vick is a huge part of that, and his confidence has trickled to all four corners of the Eagles locker room. There is a swagger there that has been missing in recent years, and it stems from the quarterback, who truly believes that no one can slow him down.

The Eagles trail only New England in scoring, averaging 28.7 points per game compared to the Patriots' 31.6. In the seven games that Vick has started and finished, that scoring average jumps to 33.6, a number that is skewed by the 59 points the Eagles dropped on Washington on Nov. 15 but impressive nonetheless.

And the team starts this critical stretch with one more bit of ammunition - revenge. They were embarrassed by how last season ended with that 34-14 loss in Dallas. Even though the Cowboys are 4-8 and don't have a shot at the postseason, the Eagles want to pay them back. It starts Sunday, in what the Eagles hope will be their first of two appearances at Cowboys Stadium, site of the Super Bowl.

"I know everybody in this locker room is ready to go, and we're not expecting what happened last year to happen this year," Mikell said. "We have a different mind-set, a different team, different abilities, and we're going to be on the attack the whole game."

While the truth-teller didn't say it, "attack" will presumably remain their mantra for the remainder of the season, however long it lasts.