THE FRIDAY before the game, the NFC Championship Game in January of 2002, I wrote a column about how everybody should just try to enjoy it, whichever way it turned out. It had been 21 years between championship games for the Eagles, after all, and it just did not seem to be something that you could count on.

Prescience has never been my strong suit.

It is January of 2009 now and the Eagles will be playing in their fifth NFC championship game in eight seasons. They lost the first one as an underdog at St. Louis, lost the next two as home favorites against Tampa Bay and Carolina, then won the last one as a home favorite against Atlanta. There was hope after St. Louis, despair after Tampa Bay, anger after Carolina and elation after Atlanta. The games came in all shapes and all sizes, as do the survivors.

There are six: Donovan McNabb, Correll Buckhalter, David Akers, Tra Thomas, Jon Runyan and Brian Dawkins. (Buckhalter, admittedly, is a bit of a stretch, injured in 2002 and 2004 but around the team nonetheless.) They are the ones who have seen it all, and felt the different emotions, and dealt with the varying expectations. They have known mostly disappointments on these days, disappointments that necessarily hardened their outer shells and sharpened their inner appetites for success.

It is hard for them to rank the experiences, as you might expect.

"Maybe I'll be able to answer that if we go out and do our job and win this game," McNabb said, as he prepared for Sunday afternoon's game against the Arizona Cardinals. "Then I'll be able to rank the NFC championships. But, you know what? It's tough to say right now. It's tough to say. We're just enjoying the moment right now; not looking further by any means and just counting the days down until we get an opportunity to step out onto that field."

The highlight is obvious enough, McNabb said.

"I think everyone would go with 2004, being able to hold that trophy up and getting hit by the confetti and knowing that you're moving on to the Super Bowl," he said. "Obviously, the lows would be the losses we've had. The things that stick in your mind in situations like that are the opportunities that you had that you didn't capitalize on - the Carolina game, the Tampa game. This is another opportunity for us and we understand that we are fortunate to be in this position, but I'm just excited."

They all are, even if they feel honor-bound to hide some of the excitement. They are favored to get back to the Super Bowl and they know it. But they have lost this game three times before and they all know that, too. There are scars in the NFL and then there are championship-game scars. There is no camouflaging that level of disappointment.

And the lesson, Akers said, "is to make each one count."

Time and distance, though, are some salve. At some point, you realize it really is an accomplishment to get this far. You talk to Runyan about his championship games - he also played one with the Tennessee Titans - and you ask whether he feels lucky or blessed or simply that he earned them.

"A little bit of all the above," Runyan said. "You have to be on the right team, in the right situation. At the same time, you have put in a lot of work, put in a lot of time to be there. So I'll take it all."

Looking back, they are so different. The first time, the Eagles played a close game as a big underdog against the Rams and people thought it was the first step to a championship. The second time, people were crushed when they lost that last game at Veterans Stadium to the Bucs.

The third time, McNabb got hurt and the receivers got manhandled against the Panthers, and the town was angry. The next time, in the 2004 season, the whole thing seemed almost preordained from the moment the Eagles signed a wide receiver named Terrell Owens.

By comparison, this one was a borderline shock after the team swooned in midseason.

"It's tough [to compare] because the mind-set was different in 2004," Dawkins said. "From Day 1 we thought we were going to do our thing and win this thing. Not saying that we didn't have that this year, but it was just flat-out on everybody's mind what we were going to do that year.

"The way we're playing right now as a unit - I'm talking about every phase - I think that we're playing some pretty good ball. I think that you can put us up, if not the best, I think as one of the best units to play together. Every unit has picked up their game. Every unit is pulling their weight. There's no unit lagging behind or whatever you want to call it. Every unit is pulling its weight. In key moments in each game, you see each unit, whether it's a kickoff return, whether it's a punt return, whether it's the offense converting a third-and-20, or whether it's the defense stopping somebody on fourth-and-1, every unit is holding up its end of the bargain. When you have that and everybody is doing their thing, it's a tough team to beat."

Dawkins said, "It's hard for me to look back and say which one team is better than the other but I can tell you that this team is the one with the most ups and downs throughout the year to make it. We've had to do a lot of gelling and coming together and a lot of putting our hands over our ears when it comes to what is going on outside to be able to get to where we are."

For a while there, it seemed almost like this group's birthright to make it to the conference finals. But then came the fallow period: 2005 and the T.O. follies (and McNabb's sport hernia); 2006, and McNabb's knee injury; 2007, the recovery year for the quarterback. There were no birthrights then, except controversy.

But now they are back - McNabb talking on the one hand about how you have to treat it as just another game, Runyan talking on the other hand about the need to raise the team's level of fire.

"You have to come out with that emotional play," Runyan said. "You have to play like that . . . What is the difference [in championship games]? It is how intensely you play."

So there it is: all shapes, all sizes, all approaches. What the six of them share is the experience, not the reaction to the experience. They all took away something different. Those Tampa Bay and Carolina losses were devastating, but McNabb, for instance, refuses to view them as the low points of his career.

"Not at all, not at all," he insisted.

If not low point, then what?

"As opportunities, just like any other regular-season game that we didn't take full advantage of," McNabb said. "Knowing the magnitude of it - obviously, we win and we move on. But, I don't put them as low points in my career."

Which is hard to understand, and not for the first time. But they're all different, all five of the championship experiences, all six of the players, which is the point. *

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