LOST IN THE hoopla surrounding the return of Donovan McNabb is the fact that the Eagles and Washington Redskins have a fairly significant game on Sunday at Lincoln Financial Field.

Given McNabb's history with Philadelphia, it's understandable that his first time back in town as an opponent would be the dominant story line.

Still, in reality, it's just the garnish around a big NFC East tussle.

There is a lot more at stake than whether McNabb gets applause or boos from Eagles fans.

There is a little more on the line than whether Andy Reid's decision to trade McNabb to a division rival gets vindicated.

For impact, this is about as huge as a game in Week 4 can get.

The Eagles are 2-1 and alone on top of the division.

Considering their early schedule, you could say that the Eagles' record would be about what most people expected.

But few would have figured the Redskins, Dallas Cowboys and New York Giants would all be 1-2.

Most people break down a football season into quarters, and while nothing will be settled this early, it's always better to be running ahead than playing catchup.

"This is big," Eagles receiver Jeremy Maclin said. "One of our goals is to win the NFC East and this is one step toward that."

There isn't some nifty trend that says the Eagles have reached the playoffs 90 percent of the time when starting out 3-1 under Reid.

In fact, there hasn't been much difference between the Birds starting 3-1 or 2-2. Of their eight playoff appearances under Reid, they started 2-2 four times and 3-1 three times. In 2004, the Super Bowl year, they started 7-0.

However, this is a different kind of year for the Eagles.

The comfort level that had been built up over the past 11 seasons left when McNabb was traded to Washington.

The team the Eagles will field against Washington has 13 rookies and five first-time starters.

This team is looking to establish its only identity for winning.

It could provide a tremendous boost of confidence to jump out to a 3-1 start and win its first division game. This is also the Eagles' only division game in the first half of the season. With a victory, the Eagles could be two games up on the Redskins and Giants - should they lose to Chicago - and a 1 1/2 up on the idle Cowboys.

"I'm not going to slight any game that you play in the National Football League, because they all count big," Reid said. "But, in the NFC East, this is obviously a big game because [it is the only division game in the first half].

"Then I think we come back with [Washington] before we hit [New York and Dallas]. I'm not quite that far ahead, but I know it's an important game."

It's probably more important for Washington.

The hiring of coach Mike Shanahan and acquisition of McNabb raised a lot of hope in D.C.

The season-opening victory over the Cowboys had Redskins fans beginning to talk about the Super Bowl.

But after blowing a big second-half lead and losing to the Houston Texans at home, the Redskins went into St. Louis and got blitzed by the lowly Rams.

Now, turmoil is just waiting to rush in.

If the Redskins lose, things could rapidly spin downward in Washington.

"I think we have a little more bit more motivation than just me going back to Philly," McNabb correctly surmised.

But if anything, talk about McNabb's return to Philadelphia seems to be a bigger deal in the Redskins' locker room than in the Eagles'.

"Even though there's a lot of pressure, you pretend like there's not a lot and it doesn't matter, but I think it always does," Shanahan said of playing against a former team.

But for some reason, when Eagles players have proclaimed that this is just another game, they've sounded believable.

"I think about Donovan as a Redskin," said wide receiver Jason Avant, who actually caught McNabb's last touchdown pass as an Eagle. "That kind of overrides any friendship. He's a great guy, but that's not going to neglect the fact that he's a Redskin."

Maybe that easy disassociation from McNabb shouldn't be a surprise. Go back to the makeup of this Eagles roster. About two-thirds of the players were McNabb's teammate for two or fewer seasons. The only players who were teammates of McNabb for at least five seasons are David Akers, Jamaal Jackson, Quintin Mikell, Mike Patterson, Todd Herremans, Trent Cole and Juqua Parker.

So while McNabb, Reid and Eagles fans have the sentiments of a decadelong relationship, most of these current Eagles weren't around McNabb long enough to become overly attached.

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