Asante Samuel returned to the locker room after Thursday's practice session and slowly, like removing the skin from an onion, peeled away the thin thermal layers meant to keep out the December chill.

As a nod to the crust of snow that fell on the outdoor field, the Eagles did their work in the large practice bubble that is nominally heated, but not so you would notice on Thursday.

For the official notice sent to the NFL, it was reported that Samuel took part in "limited" practice on Thursday, one day after full participation on Wednesday. As with the acquiescence to the weather, it appeared that Samuel was backed off a little bit solely for the sake of comfort.

"Every day is a better day," Samuel said. "If I wake up tomorrow, it will be a better day than today."

On Sunday, the Eagles are playing the New York Giants for the lead in the NFC East Division, and perhaps for the division title itself. That is no small bauble in this league. It can give a team an extra week off before the postseason, and, at the least, can make sure the postseason begins with a home game. Teams play all season long for the advantage that might be won in New Meadowlands Stadium.

Here's a guess: If Asante Samuel wakes up Sunday morning, he's playing that afternoon against the Giants. He has missed three games since suffering a strained knee ligament, and the Eagles' defense has not been the same without the ball-hawking cornerback.

For his part, Samuel is circumspect about whether he will play, which might be partially his own sense of drama, and partially the desire of his coaches not to give extra hints to New York's offense.

"The answer ain't going to change. . . . I'm working hard every day to get back out there," Samuel said. "If someone else asks me, I expect one of y'all to tell them the answer."

Samuel suffered the knee injury in the Eagles' 27-17 win over the Giants in the first meeting between the teams. He intercepted quarterback Eli Manning twice in the game before being hurt, increasing his league-leading interception total to seven this season, and his personal Manning interception total to four. Two weeks before, he had taken away a pair of pass attempts from Peyton Manning of Indianapolis.

Getting the eighth multiple-interception game of his career against the Giants helped secure the win, but it also elevated Eli Manning to a tie at the top of Samuel's career victim list. Eli has now been picked off three times by Samuel, as have Rex Grossman and Jason Campbell. Even if he gets no other title this season, Eli might get a chance to take the lead in this particular category on Sunday.

Samuel just smiled when someone said he probably wouldn't want to miss another Manning opportunity this season, but the truth is that the Eagles aren't the same team without Samuel at his left corner position. Joselio Hanson has filled in during his absence, but there is nothing that can replace Samuel's presence.

"The big thing is, he gets turnovers for us. That's why we brought him here and that's what he does," safety Quintin Mikell said. "Teams are still throwing at him. I mean, he's got seven picks. But when they test him, he comes through."

In the nine games Samuel has played this season - he also missed an October game due to a concussion - opposing quarterbacks have completed 55.3 percent of their passes, including 15 touchdown passes. In the four games he has been out, opposing quarterbacks have completed 64.9 percent of their passes, including 11 touchdowns. The math is pretty emphatic.

"I guess I better get back out there," Samuel said.

Well, it might help. Teams are averaging 22.4 points against the Eagles with Samuel in the lineup and 26.5 when he is out.

"Having Asante back, or in the hopes of having Asante back, is a big thing for us," defensive coordinator Sean McDermott said Thursday, catching himself before letting on too much. "He's a playmaker, gets his hands on the football . . . so we just need to make sure he's healthy and can cut it loose."

Since becoming a regular starter with New England in 2005, Samuel had never missed more than one game per season and nothing close to the four he has missed this year.

"It's frustrating, because I've never been through this before," he said. "It's something I'm learning how to overcome."

Sunday's opportunity to demote the Giants and promote Eli Manning to the top of his interception list seems like the perfect time for Samuel to return. The Eagles are tied for second in the NFL in takeaways (30) and the Giants lead the league in giveaways (33). What a spot for someone like Samuel to return, and that might just be the case, although neither the player nor the team needs to say that just yet. When the active list is announced an hour before the game, that's when we'll find out.

"When he's in there, he brings expectations that you just can't coach," said Dimitri Patterson, the right cornerback. "He's a tough guy to replace."

The Eagles have tried, but haven't done it, that's for sure. Fortunately, Samuel is working hard every day to get back out there, and, regardless of how sweet the possible comeback setting, the answer ain't going to change, y'all.

Bob Ford: Asante's Victims

Quarterbacks who have been picked off by Asante Samuel (42 career interceptions, 28 victims):

Three interceptions

Eli Manning, Rex Grossman, and Jason Campbell.

Two interceptions

Peyton Manning, Joey Harrington, A.J. Feeley, Josh Johnson, Vince Young, Carson Palmer, J.P. Losman, and Matt Ryan.

One interception

Vinny Testaverde, Danny Kanell, Kelly Holcomb, Brooks Bollinger, Jon Kitna, David Carr, Trent Edwards, Derek Anderson, Tony Romo, Ben Roethlisberger, Ken Dorsey, Jake Delhomme, Alex Smith, Kyle Orton, Jamarcus Russell, David Garrard, and Kerry Collins.

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Contact columnist Bob Ford
at 215-854-5842 or bford@phillynews.com. Read his recent work at http://go.philly.com/bobford.