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Who Leads Eagles Back To The Win Column?

They will meet on the sidelines and whoop and holler and perform all of the ritualistic moves that football players make prior to battle. You know the talkers -- Tra Thomas on offense, Omar Gaither and Brian Dawkins on defense. Theirs are the voices you hear on those cool sideline shots where the boom mike is hanging over a group of players just before kickoff.

But when the game starts, the group emotion begins with the individual and spreads based on the moment of the game. Yelling and screaming isn't the thing here. Performance matters.

And to that, I wonder this: Who is the player on this team who steps forward and gets the Eagles back in the win column?

There are a couple of logical candidates. Quarterback Donovan McNabb and running back Brian Westbrook are the offensive players who are likely to have their hands on the ball more than the others. As we talk about getting off to a quick start and sustaining it for the length of the game, those are two players who clearly have to play well against the Bengals. I mean, it isn't like the Eagles are going to go into this game intent on running the football for 15 of their first 20 offensive snaps. I'm sure they want some kind of balance, but you know and I know and the Bengals know the Eagles are gonna throw a lot on Sunday afternoon.

To me, McNabb is the key player, above all others. For whatever reason, he has been slow on the draw in several games. I've watched him before the games, and McNabb throws the ball well and seems plenty warm as the offense takes the field and then, well, slow. Too slow. So I think McNabb has to be the focal point here and take charge and move the chains and pump life into the offense from the very start of the game.

It is going to be more than McNabb, though. And more than Westbrook. In a very real way, this is a leadership question, an intangible measured by the way the Eagles open the game and the way they respond to adversity. Admittedly, the Eagles showed some terrific resiliency on Sunday night by overcoming a 17-7 deficit and taking a lead in the fourth quarter against the Giants, but they couldn't sustain the advantage and then, in the end, could not make one, final, scoring drive.

How does the leadership on this team take to the road against a 1-8 Bengals team in a game that is so far away from the national television glare? The Eagles are coming off an emotional, painful loss in the division and they have to bounce back and win on the road and ... yeah, it's a really different kind of test for a football team hoping to find itself right now.

What about the defense? Who is the leader there? Brian Dawkins, yes, for his standing on this team and the way he conducts himself and the great success he has had in his career. But the defense is loaded with younger players. The defense needs more than Dawkins. The front seven has to set the tone on Sunday against the Bengals. Cincinnati has a young quarterback in Ryan Fitzpatrick. There is no way the Eagles can allow him an instant to feel comfortable. Somebody in the front seven must make a big play early and create a buzz.

On paper, the Eagles are a better team, but paper means nothing. This is a game of emotion and of execution and of heart and desire. It's going to be cold on Sunday and the wind could be a factor. The Eagles are facing a team that has absolutely nothing to lose. A whole bunch of factors are floating around this team right now, and the leaders on the team have to step forward and make sure everyone is pushing in the right direction.

So is the guy early on Sunday? Who makes a difference? What do we really know about the makeup of the locker room? Andy Reid believes he has a tough-minded team, one that is going to bounce back from a tough loss and win its fourth game in five outings. Maybe. Hopefully. Darn tootin'.

Sunday, we're going to find out what the Eagles plan to do with a season that has little wiggle room remaining. We're going to get a glimpse into the mindset of a team that has its back against the wall. Who wants to step forward? Who are the leaders?

After all of the pre-game antics, who shows the way for the Eagles?

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