Eagles shrug off role as favorite

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PHILADELPHIA - No matter the point spread, records or opponent, the Philadelphia Eagles consider themselves an underdog every week.

The New York Giants seem to have embraced that role.

It's no surprise these division rivals can't even agree on the simplest point.

"Don't pick us," Eagles cornerback Sheldon Brown said. "We enjoy proving people wrong. We're still an underdog."

For the record, Philadelphia (10-6) is a touchdown favorite over the Giants (8-8) in Sunday's NFC wild-card game at Lincoln Financial Field.

A month ago, it would've been inconceivable to see the Eagles in this position. They were counted out after a knee injury ended Donovan McNabb's season in Week 11 and a 24-point loss in Indianapolis a week later left them at 5-6.

Led by Jeff Garcia and a rejuvenated defense, Philadelphia won five straight to capture its fifth NFC East title in six years and earn the No. 3 seed in the conference.

Meanwhile, the Giants now are the ones being written off after losing six of their last eight games. Their defense has been awful down the stretch, their offense is inconsistent and they've been a dysfunctional team.

"It's nice to be the underdog," Giants running back Tiki Barber said. "You get to fly under the radar a little bit, have some extra motivation. Everybody's always talking about respect; how can we attain it individually and as a team? As the underdog, that plays heavily into your game plan and your motivation for the week."

Both teams were 7-6 when they met at the Meadowlands just three weeks ago. A 36-22 victory validated Philadelphia's status as a legitimate threat in a mediocre NFC. The Eagles followed with a dominating 23-7 win at Dallas on Christmas Day, and got some much-needed rest when Detroit's win over the Cowboys assured them first place and allowed coach Andy Reid to rest his starters in the regular-season finale.

The Giants needed a career performance from the retirement-bound Barber just to beat Washington last Saturday and prolong a disappointing season. Barber had a franchise-record 234 yards rushing and three touchdowns against the Redskins. An outstanding effort in Philly could extend Barber's career at least one more game, and cement coach Tom Coughlin's return to New York next season.

"So much is at stake because you realize that there are no more," Barber said. "If you lose, you come home, pack your bags and you're done. So, there needs to be better urgency and better attention to what it takes to win."

Barber had five straight 100-yard games against the Eagles before this season. He was held to just 51 yards in New York's overtime win in Week 2 and had 75 yards last month. Philadelphia's beleaguered run defense allowed four teams to rush for more than 200 yards in a six-game span, but kept the Giants and Cowboys to under 100 yards each in consecutive games.

Defensive coordinator Jim Johnson likely will focus his strategy on stopping Barber so Eli Manning has to throw often. The Eagles hope to rattle Manning with their blitz and force him into making mistakes.

Manning's only playoff appearance was a forgettable one. He threw three interceptions in a 23-0 home loss to Carolina last year.

"You've just got to get to the point where if things start off bad or start off slow, you can't try to force things," said Manning, who had 24 TDs and 18 picks this season. "You can't try to make things happen. That's when mistakes happen."

The key to Philly's success without McNabb has been Garcia's ability to limit turnovers and avoid sacks. He had 10 TD passes, only two picks and was sacked six times.

A three-time Pro Bowl selection in San Francisco, Garcia revived his career after miserable one-year stints in Cleveland and Detroit. His teammates have rallied around his fiery personality, and the offense has become more balanced.

Brian Westbrook ran for a career-best 1,217 yards, caught a team-high 77 passes and scored 11 TDs combined.

"It's not like the plays have necessarily changed within the game plan. It's a matter of execution," Garcia said. "I think what has somewhat changed a little bit is giving Westbrook the opportunity to get more touches on the ball. I don't think that the throws down the field or anything like that have changed. That's all adapting to what we face as far as defenses are concerned."

This will be the seventh time the Eagles play an NFC East opponent in the playoffs. Since beating Dallas in the conference title game 26 years ago, Philadelphia has lost five straight playoff games against division rivals.

The Giants beat the Eagles in a wild-card game in 1981, and a second-round matchup six years ago. Garcia had one of his best games against the Giants in the 2002 playoffs. He led the 49ers from a 24-point deficit to a 39-38 victory, throwing for 331 yards and three touchdowns.

"They have a better record than us, but I think it's all about who shows up on Sunday," Giants center Shaun O'Hara said. "We're here and we're not going to apologize for being in the playoffs to anybody. Now we understand where we are. Our past doesn't matter now."

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