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Game Time Nears With Confidence In The Air

Practice is crisp. The players look fresh. Spirits are high. Football is in the air, and doesn't it seem like forever since the Eagles played a game? I'm not sure if there are stories to write or theories to discuss other than ... can ... the ... Eagles ... get ... on ... a ... roll?

You want breakdowns? Yeah, OK. The Eagles need to play better offensively, defensively and on special teams than they did in the first six games. And they all know it. They all know that 3-3 is not where they wanted to be, but they also understand that Atlanta is next on Sunday and the second half of the season, and the stretch run, is still to come.

When we last saw the Eagles, there were in the midst of scaring the daylights out of everyone through three quarters in San Francisco, only to rise up with a 23-0 fourth quarter. It was a hopeful surge, a dominating 15 minutes and the kind of stretch that could maybe, possibly vault the Eagles into the kind of groove they enjoyed so much in years past.

The win over the 49ers, though, feels like it happened months ago. Since that time, the Eagles have made a couple of roster moves, have welcomed starters Kevin Curtis and Brian Westbrook back to the lineup (wide receiver Reggie Brown is still working his way to full strength) and have announced that star right guard Shawn Andrews will miss six weeks or longer after having back surgery.

Deep breath.

So what can we expect Sunday against Atlanta? Historically, Andy Reid's teams have played with fire and brimstone after their bye weeks. Reid is 9-0 after the bye and the Eagles are home and there is every reason to believe the Eagles can continue what they left off with in San Fran.

But then again, there is that maddening question about who this team really is and if it has the understanding of who it is, and what its identity is and if, in fact, there is the swagger here that a championship team carries.

Wins cure everything. The Eagles are looking to string together back-to-back wins for the first time this season at a time when it is absolutely important to press the pedal all the way down and go, man, go.

I'm sitting here absolutely beside myself waiting for Sunday to come. I want to see the Eagles team I know is there, one that plays inspired, emotional and precision football for 60 minutes. Atlanta is a good football team, young and fast. The Falcons are physical. They believe in what they are doing. They have a sense of purpose after last year's disaster. They are coming here to beat the Eagles, not to have a joy ride.

This Eagles team is a good team, one that can be very, very good if they play the kind of football they are capable of playing. It's going to be interesting to watch the offense on Sunday, now that Curtis is set for his 2008 debut and with Westbrook as close to 100 percent as he has been since the opening-day win over St. Louis. The Eagles have so much more speed in the lineup with Curtis and Westbrook joining DeSean Jackson. Should the Falcons challenge the receivers at the line of scrimmage, the Eagles have a chance to make some big plays down the field in the passing game. Should the Falcons lay back, the Eagles have a chance to sustain drives and move the chains with the short- and intermediate-passing game.

Defensively, we all know the challenge the Falcons present. They run the ball extremely well with Michael Turner and Jerious Norwood. They have good receivers in Roddy White and Michael Jenkins. Their young quarterback, Matt Ryan, is a star in the making. The Eagles have to play well up front, they have to tackle effectively and they have to make sure they don't give up big plays down the field.

And, of course, special teams are huge.

And the crowd is huge.

And the team's emotions are huge.

And the play-calling is huge.

Hurry up and get here, Sunday.

Honestly, though, it's time to see what kind of team this is. The record since the Super Bowl has not been good. The larger sample of Reid's Eagles is much more impressive, and so I'm going to bank on that success rather than on a two-and-a-half season window. This is a crucial, crossroads stretch, a make-or-break time for a team very much in the hunt in the division and in the conference.

My formula to win is simple: Get the ball in the hands of the three offensive standouts -- Westbrook, Jackson and Curtis. Make sure that tight end L.J. Smith is a viable weapon in the passing game. Run enough to keep the offense balanced and the defense honest. Keep mistakes at a minimum.

In this game, the offense sets the tone. Now, of course, if the Falcons come out running and have a great deal of success, we're talking about a different story. I think it's important that the Eagles set the pace with a quick tempo on offense and that they get a lead and take the Falcons out of that run-first comfort level on offense.

But what do I know? Not much, really. I know that the Eagles need to show me something here. I believe in the team, in the talent and in the chemistry and in the character. I believe in the coaching staff. I think great things are ahead for the Eagles.

And I'm counting down until 1 p.m. on Sunday. The season resumes then. And then, week by week, we will all learn just a little bit more about the Eagles and about how good they can truly be this season.

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