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Has anyone met expectations? The defending Super Bowl champion Packers and quarterback Aaron Rodgers were supposed to pick up where they left off in Dallas last February. They have, with a 6--0 record, the last unbeaten team in the league. They are the calm at the center of the storm.
No team has experienced more unrest than Philly. After opening with a 31--13 road win over the Rams (a team that seemed playoff-bound in the preseason and is 0--5 now), the Eagles lost on a Sunday night to the Falcons in Vick's second NFL return to Atlanta, blew fourth-quarter leads against the Giants and 49ers and fell short in a late rally against Buffalo to drop to 1--4. "At 1--2 there's a mentality that says, We've got to turn this thing around," said Mathis. "Then there's the same mentality at 1--3. It starts to get heightened when you don't actually turn it around and you're 1--4." Under the current playoff system, no NFL team has made the playoffs after starting 1--5.
No opponent could have better demonstrated the league's formlessness than the Redskins. Seemingly without a viable quarterback in training camp—McNabb was gone, and vice president--coach Mike Shanahan decided not to draft a replacement—Washington had gone 3--1 with the enigmatic (or worse) Rex Grossman at the controls, and on Sunday, FedEx was filled and rocking with acolytes desperate for a winner. To review: The very talented Eagles were playing for their football lives, and the theoretically outgunned Redskins were playing to maintain their lead in the NFC East. It was common sense turned inside out, yet perfectly emblematic of the modern NFL. (Oddsmakers are the one populace unswayed; they made the Eagles a 1½-point favorite.)
A week earlier, before the loss to the Bills, Vick had publicly retired the Dream Team label. Before the Redskins game the approach was more pragmatic. "The coaches showed us our mistakes on film," said wide receiver Jeremy Maclin. "They were big mistakes. Turnovers, missed assignments, all across the board. But they were mistakes. It's not like we weren't good enough. We had to bring the intensity back to practice."
It's a part of football mechanics at all levels that when a play is executed poorly in practice, that play is run again, repeated until it is done correctly. This goes for the defense or the offense. "This week, we didn't have any repeats," said Babin. "Those plays that we repeated in the first five weeks, we didn't repeat. Everything was crisp and clean. We blocked out the losses and concentrated on our individual goals."
Vick spoke to the team. Several defensive veterans spoke to the team. "There was an urgency, for sure," said Rodgers-Cromartie. "If you had a chance to make a play in practice, you made it."
The Eagles had a 20--0 lead in the second quarter and essentially hung on for the rest of the afternoon. "Kept our foot on them, instead of letting them come back," said Rodgers-Cromartie. Vick was respectable, throwing for 237 yards with a touchdown and a pick, and LeSean McCoy ran for 126 yards and a score. The most pertinent statistic, though, was the four interceptions thrown by Grossman, who reverted to the worst of his always inconsistent form and was benched for John Beck in the fourth quarter. It was Vick who said afterward, "This is a tough game; it's not as easy as it looks from the sideline," but it was Grossman who best illustrated this by making it not look easy at all from the sideline.
And like this, the roles abruptly change again. The Redskins, facing road games against the Panthers and the Bills (in Toronto), suddenly look desperate for a win and a quarterback. The Eagles, with a bye week ahead to help heal their wounded offensive line and get defensive end Trent Cole healthy (out since Oct. 2 with a strained right calf), are revitalized and sailing on newfound momentum. It's only a matter of time until the Dream Team name resurfaces.
At least one of Philly's players understands the foolishness. In a corner of the locker room on Sunday, Babin passed on the postgame spread in favor of a chalky protein shake. At first he spoke with a single reporter, but then a small crowd formed, and Babin amped up his storytelling. The big moment of the week, he said, was when defensive line coach Jim Washburn brought in a guest speaker to inspire his troops. "Mr. Dilligaf," said Babin, as if serious, even shouting to a teammate for effect, "Hey, when did Mr. Dilligaf speak to us? Wednesday?" Later, to finish the joke, Babin tweeted: "Thanks to Mr. Dilligaf... . Great dude."
Dilligaf is two things—a persona Babin employs when addressing his D-line brethren and an acronym you won't hear in church. It means: Do I Look Like I Give A F---? It's not deep thought, but it captures a slice of NFL truth: Don't take this week seriously, because it won't last.