The Minnesota Vikings are the perfect reality check for an Eagles team that is suddenly a real threat to go to the Super Bowl.

Not because the Vikings are an especially daunting opponent. They aren't. In fact, they are a big leaky trash bag full of toxic waste and combustible chemicals, as apt to burst into caustic flame as to fall apart all over everything nice.

But just 11 months ago, this hot mess was hot stuff. The Vikings were one awful Brett Favre pass from the Super Bowl. Brad Childress, not Sean Payton, could have been the latest Instant Genius. Instead, he is unemployed, Favre is a punch line, and the Vikings are roadkill.

So they are less interesting as an opponent than as purple-clad proof of how quickly things can turn bad in the NFL. And that is a lesson that couldn't hurt these Eagles. They are improbably real contenders to win the franchise's first Lombardi Trophy, and that opportunity is not to be taken lightly.

Pshaw, say many longtime Eagles fans. This team has been so close, so often that everyone in the organization already understands the urgency. Well, that's the fan perspective. The players' perspective is very different.

Yes, the Eagles lost three consecutive NFC championship games before finally winning one (against Michael Vick and the Falcons, of course) and losing a Super Bowl to the Patriots. That run of close-but-no-Lombardi-Trophy surely immunized this franchise against taking opportunities lightly.

You know how many players on the current roster played in that Super Bowl? Two - kicker David Akers and safety Quintin Mikell.

The Eagles went back to the NFC title game just two years ago, losing to the Arizona Cardinals in a game that still defies comprehension. There are just 20 players left from that team - less than 40 percent of the 53-man roster.

The marquee changes, of course, are at quarterback and running back. Vick and LeSean McCoy have made it look easy to replace Donovan McNabb and Brian Westbrook (it isn't; look around the league). DeSean Jackson, a rookie in that Arizona game, is the centerpiece of the offense, an electrifying combo of Westbrook's ability to score on any given play and Terrell Owens' game-changing presence.

So why should any of these players care about what is, to them, ancient Eagles history?

They shouldn't. Frankly, the further they can get from what became a quagmire of near-greatness in Andy Reid's first decade, the better. But they can benefit from a quick peek across the field Sunday night at a team that collapsed more spectacularly than the roof of its home dome earlier this month.

In 2009, Favre kept the Vikings waiting, showed up at the end of training camp, and led the team to a 12-4 record, a division title, and a 34-3 blowout of the Cowboys in the divisional round of the playoffs. A week later, the Vikings were driving toward the winning score near the end of regulation in the conference championship against the Saints.

Instead, Favre threw one of his "gunslinger" picks and it was the Saints who kicked the game-winning field goal in overtime. They went on to win the Super Bowl.

In 2010, Favre kept the Vikings waiting again. This time, though, he wasn't nearly the player he had been. The team got off to a 2-5 start. Childress traded for Randy Moss, then almost immediately released the boorish receiver. After being a play or two from the Super Bowl, Childress was made to look ridiculous, and (cue The Godfather here) a man in his position cannot afford to be made to look ridiculous. He was fired last month.

Favre, meanwhile, bulled his way back into the starting lineup last week despite a serious shoulder injury. By halftime, he was out again, victim of a concussion. Rookie Joe Webb, who looked lost against a voracious Bears defense, will likely start Sunday night against the Eagles.

So the Vikings aren't so much a threat as an object lesson. In the NFL, things fall apart quickly.

Against long odds, the Eagles are the hottest team in the NFC right now. Vick is playing better than he ever has. Last week's "winnus mirabilis" against the Giants still has fans, media, and players buzzing. The team has taken on an aura: These Eagles are never out of a game, and they know how to win.

Maybe things will be great for years to come. Vick could sign a long-term deal and maintain this fresh new commitment to excellence. Jackson could stay healthy and uncatchable. The young defense could develop into something special.

Or it could all go to pieces. There's just no way to know. But a look at what used to be the Minnesota Vikings ought to remind these Eagles just how special their opportunity really is.