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Once untouchable, Eagles have now reached a crossroads

Saying that Thursday night's home game against the disappointing, but feisty, Houston Texans is a must-win for Philadelphia is overstating things pretty seriously.

After all, at worst, the shooting-star Eagles would fall a game behind the Giants at Week 13's end, and that's with a win over New York already in their pocket and another game against their division rivals to go.

But it is fair to say this: The Eagles' season has, most certainly, hit a fork in the road.

And yes, it's taken a while for Philadelphia to get to this point, where the Eagles are really trying to figure out exactly who they are, but circumstances have led to this team really flying by the seat of its pants and staying atop the standings longer than most folks expected. Now, we figure how much substance there is behind the flashy style.

One of the aforementioned circumstances is the youth of this team. Only Carolina, Tampa Bay, Jacksonville, Miami, Green Bay, and Kansas City (in that order) entered the year with younger rosters, and Miami, Houston and Carolina were the only teams with fewer than the six 30-somethings the Eagles carried. It was a process to get to that point, and a jarring one for a club that's had the status quo as its bedrock for more than a decade, with the final blow being the trade of Donovan McNabb.

That leads us to the second mitigating circumstance, which is the quarterback situation. As that young roster was finding its way, it had Kevin Kolb as its quarterback first (through the offseason and into the opener), then Michael Vick (after a pyrotechnic performance in Week 2 subbing for a concussed Kolb), then Kolb again (after Vick went out with a rib cartilage injury against Washington), and finally Vick again (returning from the injury on Nov. 7). So a team looking for its identity, through all the change elsewhere, had to continue to adapt, with continued upheaval under center.

So it's only over the last month that we've started to get an idea of who the Eagles really are -- a tremendously fast and explosive team that, at times, needs its offense to protect its defense. And that's fine. But until now, this club's resolve hasn't been tested like it will be Thursday.

That's where the fork in the road comes in. Against Houston, the Eagles will find out, in ways they haven't before, what they're made of.

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"We expect so much from ourselves, and experiencing my first loss with these guys while playing a full game, we kind of took it to heart," Vick said on Monday, the day after the Eagles lost, as he referenced, for the first time with himself going the distance. "We just have to understand that we're going to win together, and we're going to lose together."

The biggest questions in that locker room on Monday played right into that point. Did these Eagles really take ownership of the loss, or did the defeat simply reveal cracks in the foundation of a team with some maturing to do?

After the 31-26 loss in Chicago, one that was very explainable in retrospect (Lovie Smith's style of defense has always given Vick trouble, a slow track on the municipal field mucked things up for a fast team, and Chicago's no slouch in its own right), Reid launched into a tirade with what seemed to send a pretty simple message for a young team. Only star receiver DeSean Jackson didn't take the "You haven't arrived yet" theme the way Reid intended, and thus started the problem.

As early as Monday afternoon, a high-ranking team source said the problem had been "all squared away," and the feeling the Eagles had was that it was part of the normal ebb-and-flow of an NFL season, long as those seasons are.

But as "normal" as that ebb-and-flow might be, a team's handling of such reveals who it is, and so that's where the Eagles find themselves now. The short week, with three days to prepare for Houston, forced the expediting of the process, which isn't a bad thing. And how the club reacts to its first loss under Vick, how the young players respond to Reid's message, and how the group, as a whole, bands together in the face of some strife should tell you something about how far they can go.

Going back to the Chicago game, Vick said, "We had an opportunity to go up on the goal line, and we didn't capitalize. You just can't make mistakes down there in the red zone. I totally understand why (Reid) was upset."

He added later, "We expect a lot out of ourselves as a team and (Sunday's game) was very disappointing. We just want to bounce back as quick as we can."

The ability, no question, is there, especially with a Texans defense that's been undermanned all year, without injured middle linebacker DeMeco Ryans or departed cornerback Dunta Robinson, and will be outgunned on Thursday waiting to provide the antidote. If everything indeed is OK in Philadelphia, the Eagles will bounce back, trounce a wounded foe and carry that momentum through the rest of the season.

If everything isn't OK, maybe we see something else. But either way, on Thursday night, we should find out just a little bit about who these Eagles really are.

Follow Albert Breer on Twitter @albertbreer.

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