For Eagles, no ordinary playoff game

"It's frustrating that we have all these questions and we're division champs," says Quintin Mikell. "We'll use that for motivation."
"It's frustrating that we have all these questions and we're division champs," says Quintin Mikell. "We'll use that for motivation."
Posted: January 09, 2011

Quintin Mikell saw it coming. Before the cameras started rolling and the microphones started recording, before the first notes were jotted down, and well before any questions were asked, he told the reporters packed in tight around his NovaCare Complex locker to wait.

Mikell turned his back on the media horde - something the cautious would advise against - and paused. Then he put on a hat. The multitoned cap he selected wasn't fancy or expensive, but it was unique. It was stamped with the Eagles' logo, along with "2010 NFC East Division Champions."

"There," Mikell said. "Now I'm ready."

Mikell was sending a pretty obvious message. He seemed so eager to deliver it. It was sort of sad to watch, because no one received it.

There were questions about the Birds' failures in the final two games and the team's suspect defense this season. There were questions about what the Packers do right and the Eagles do wrong. There were questions about stalled momentum heading into the postseason. There were questions, lots of them, but few were flattering.

In the end, there were even statements about various media experts and how the visiting cheeseheads are the fashionable pick to win on Sunday and the local cheesesteaks aren't. (Vegas, meanwhile, has Philly installed as the favorite.)

"I don't really care who's picked to win the game," Mikell said. "We want to win the game. It's frustrating that we have all these questions and we're division champs. Can we do this? Can we do that? And it is frustrating. We'll use that for motivation."

Motivation is fine, but it won't stop the questions, and it won't win anyone's respect, either. The Eagles were motivated heading into last year's playoffs, too. That didn't work out so well.

Which brings us to Sunday. For an organization that has played plenty of playoff games under Andy Reid, this particular clash is somehow one of the biggest of his administration. There won't be a parade afterward, but a referendum will be rendered.

As Mikell learned while trying to hide behind his hat, there are questions about this Eagles team, questions that linger and nag and aggravate, because after 16 games no one is quite sure what to make of the Birds. They are young and they are exciting - you hear that a lot, from outsiders and from the Eagles themselves - but beyond that no one can be certain and confident about anything.

Are they the explosive, dynamic team that forced countless Giants fans into a deep, lasting depression with a historic comeback on the road? Or are they the team that underachieved mightily against the inferior Vikings at home?

"It's a great privilege to be in the playoffs, it's a great reward, and there's a certain energy that goes with it," Reid said. "We have a few more [media] in this room than we normally do and everything. So that's the way it works. Everything is just a little - there's a difference."

For this group in this game, the difference is between praise and criticism. It is the difference between up or down, right track or wrong, moving forward or standing still. This game represents the chasm between smiling faces and frowning, frothing masses. This is a playoff game, yes, but for an organization trying to transition from one era to the next, it's a playoff game that's far more important than most wild-card weekend meetings.

Win, and the Michael Vick experiment was unquestionably the right move. Win, and people will delete the "in-" from "inexperienced" when talking about these Birds. Win, and the shift from the old Donovan McNabb/Brian Westbrook/Brian Dawkins/Jon Runyan crew to this new, young, and exciting bunch - has anyone mentioned how young and exciting they are? - is complete.

But lose - lose, and the Birds end their season with one fewer win than they had a year ago. Lose, and the Eagles finish their season without a playoff victory for the second straight year. Lose, and everyone catches heat - from Reid to Vick to the front office. Lose, and there will be more questions, lots of them, and most of them unpleasant.

After a while, when you watch a team like the Eagles make the playoffs more years than not, some postseason games can feel routine - as though it was all fated and not a big deal. This one isn't that. This one is the opposite of that.

"We set out from the beginning of the year to win the Super Bowl," Mikell said. "Nobody believed us. We said we were going to make the playoffs. We said we were going to do all these different things and nobody believed us. Nobody."

There's a way to fix that - and it isn't with a souvenir hat.


Contact columnist John Gonzalez at 215-854-2813 or gonzalez@phillynews.com

Follow him on Twitter: www.twitter.com/gonzophilly

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