FOR ANYONE WHO invested in this edition of the Eagles - and you know who you are - you have a choice to make about how you spend the next 9 months.

Beginning this weekend, with the exhibition game against the Redskins, you can seethe with anger and disappointment.

You can wish in vain for the firing of Andy Reid. You can hope that first-year defensive coordinator Juan Castillo and his similarly untested staff gets scapegoated out of town.

You can complain about how young general manager Howie Roseman and his mentor, Joe Banner, botched the last two drafts, or how they poisoned the team's relationship with petulant receiver DeSean Jackson.

Or, you can face reality.

The Eagles, right now, are the best team in the NFC East. Regardless of what happens Sunday, they will finish with four wins in the division, more than any other team. They might be the third-best team in the NFC; they can't touch Green Bay and New Orleans, should have beaten Atlanta and San Francisco, and they might be better than Detroit.

They are today what they hoped to be - what they expected to be - on Sept. 11 in St. Louis.

"As coaches and players, you wanted that to happen Week 1. The reality is, there were a lot of moving parts and that didn't happen," Reid said. "The bottom line is, they're together now."

Michael Vick is playing better than he has ever played. He is running the entire complicated offense; he is making correct reads; he is mechanically sound; he is running when he should, as a last resort.

"A lot of that is just from being healthy," said Reid, who helped build Vick from sandlot savant to polished professional.

Significantly, Reid referenced the concussion Vick suffered at Atlanta in Game 2, which never cost Vick a game but which clearly dogged Vick for the next several weeks. Vick also missed three games with broken ribs.

With Vick, combined with Jackson, LeSean McCoy, Jeremy Maclin and Brent Celek, this is the most potent offense the Eagles have ever had.

"There are things that you can look on the bright side on and a lot of positive things that we can take away from the last four games we played," Vick said.

The offensive line, thanks to the genius of new coach Howard Mudd and Pro Bowl play from Jason Peters - perhaps the Eagles' best lineman ever - has turned into a consistent entity.

The defense, once derided, has become dynamic.

The Birds rank 31st in red-zone defense, but they surrendered 36 total points in the past three games and stand a respectable 12th in the league in points allowed.

Yes, with an emphasis on rushing the quarterback and tight coverage downfield, you should have more than 14 interceptions and 23 total takeaways, but that will come when the unit acts on instinct, not instruction.

"We want more turnovers, but guys had to learn the defense and start playing fast," said Castillo. "That's been happening."

So, fire Castillo and scrap the progress? Or keep him, give him a couple of linebackers and maybe a defensive tackle. Get run-stopper Antonio Dixon back from injury, and see what happens.

The last time the Eagles had anything like the Trent Cole/Jason Babin defensive-end combination was when Reggie White and Clyde Simmons dominated in 1992. Cole and Babin stand five behind White's and Simmons' total of 33, and Cole is having a better year than Babin, who has 18 of their 28.

The Birds lead the league with 49 sacks.

This is bad?

Remember, this season was lost early.

It was lost when overmatched linebackers and safeties blew assignments, tackles and leads in the first three losses.

It was lost when, behind an offensive line that had Kyle DeVan starting at guard, Ronnie Brown was given the option to pass at the goal line in Game 4 against the 49ers. DeVan did not start again, and was cut midway through the season.

It was lost when the Eagles chose to make their big linebacker/safety moves in the persons of fourth-rounder Casey Matthews, who started in the middle and was benched by Game 4; castoff Jarrad Page, the starting strong safety who was benched by Game 6 and was cut by Game 10: and second-rounder Jaiquawn Jarrett, a safety who couldn't get on the field 4 of the first 5 weeks. Then again, he hasn't been particularly noticeable in the games he did play.

Page, DeVan, Matthews, rookie center Jason Kelce, rookie guard Danny Watkins - those are among the moving parts Reid meant.

The moving parts were overshadowed by big-name acquisitions like Nnamdi Asomugha, Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie, Cullen Jenkins, Vince Young and Babin. That bunch of acquisitions provided expectations that, plainly, were too high.

It's hard for the players, too, to not regret what might have been.

"What we were on paper at the beginning of the year - when people thought we'd won free agency, and we were the best," said guard Evan Mathis, who was not even projected to start. "The way we're playing as a team right now, if we could parlay this into next year, it's definitely something that could be special."

If that sounds hollow, consider this: Hamstrung by a porous defense in 2006, the Packers went 4-8 to start the season but rallied to 8-8.

In 2007 they went 13-3 and went to the NFC Championship Game.

"That meant so much for the team to end on that type of note," said Jenkins, who was in his third season in 2006. "Any time you can find any type of positive to end a season like this on, you can use that to carry over. It can have a big effect on a team."

So, wallow in your misery . . . or bathe yourself in hope.

Send email to hayesm@phillynews.com