— Six games into a season Philadelphia Eagles coach Andy Reid has been pointing to forever, his team is faced with a crucial test it must pass just to keep his fading dream from dissolving to reveal a landscape in which he fails to make the playoffs two years in a row for the first time in his career.
As it is, the Eagles still would not be out of serious danger of falling apart even with a convincing victory over the Atlanta Falcons today.
But a loss, considering all that's happened in the past three weeks and the past three years with Reid and his team and his family, would be a disaster from which none of his normally remarkably focused and resilient teams could recover.
This would only be because Reid has seemed to lose a good bit of focus himself.
Intoxicated by an awakening quarterback Michael Vick experienced two years ago, Reid convinced himself (not to mention a good portion of the American public) that it would be permanent instead of the all-too-brief fluke it seems to have turned out to be.
Reid tossed Vick the keys to the racecar with no restrictor plates and watched in horror as his enthusiastic ,but fatally flawed, student eventually wrecked it, turned a team with the finest collection of offensive talent in franchise history into an also-ran that now is the second-worst point producer in the NFL.
To be fair, Vick isn't solely to blame here. He's had plenty of help. More on that later.
The following year, Reid again led with his heart instead of his head, appointing longtime offensive line coach Juan Castillo to run a hastily rebuilt defense that became alarmingly and sometimes embarrassingly deficient late in games.
This, after locking into a Wide 9 scheme that new defensive line coach Jim Washburn would not work without and allowing new offensive line coach Howard Mudd to reshape his unit however he saw fit.
All of these decisions have backfired, most of them spectacularly.
The Wide 9 proved to be good for generating quarterback pressure — until their opponents adjusted — but not much else. Now the Eagles are scrambling back to the drawing board figuring out ways to make a system that no championship team has ever run as its base work again.
Mudd discarded too many competent backup linemen such as Winston Justice, Mike McGlynn, Austin Howard and A.Q. Shipley. All are starters elsewhere and would have made much better replacement options when tackle Jason Peters and center Jason Kelce were lost to injuries than Demetress Bell, King Dunlap and Dallas Reynolds.
But hey, at least they're more than $20 million under the salary cap — all the better to be in position to go after somebody who could really help with depth issues, such as free-agent safety LaRon Landry.
Oh, wait ... 2011 second-round draft pick Jaiquawn Jarrett can do that job, and for a lot less money.
After watching his team lose on the final play of each of the last two games following a win over the New York Giants that went into the books only after the Giants missed a last-second field goal, Reid decided to cut his losses with Castillo and replaced him on Oct. 16 with Todd Bowles.
Unfortunately he cannot squeeze the toothpaste back into the tube on many of his other miscalculations, and so here he sits for today's game against the undefeated Falcons, a team he now has to beat just to keep his own players from losing faith in this system.
"There's some things that we can do better," Reid said. "I started with myself [during the off week], I told you that. There's some things that I can do better to make sure we're doing the right things and getting back to some of the things that I think we do best on both sides of the ball and on special teams. Then we go from there.
"You know the facts. The fact is that you lose two games in the fourth quarter when you've got the lead, whether it's by a point or two or three or 10, it doesn't matter. Those are tough ones. So you go back and you work it out and you figure it out and it's not the defense, it's everybody. It's everybody doing their job better. And so that's what we have to do. You know the obvious. You can't have the turnovers, you can't have the big plays, you've got to develop field position. So we've got to make sure we get those things done."
With a broken-down offensive line that's coming off the beating of its life by a bunch of thugs from Detroit, a quarterback who is on pace to turn the ball over more than 32 times by himself, and a new defensive coordinator who's never called plays at the pro level.
If the Eagles can't find a way to beat the Falcons today, they will not find a way to dig themselves out of the psychological 3-4 hole they'd be in with a loss.
At some point, even the most loyal professionals will stop believing. Heck, maybe a lot of them already have.
We'll know by tonight.