To discover when the Philadelphia Eagles found their defensive self-esteem this season, you have to return to their defensive low point.
That would be Nov. 7 in Pittsburgh, where the Eagles were gouged for 252 rushing yards in a grisly 27-3 loss to the Steelers.
A week later, Jeremiah Trotter replaced Mark Simoneau at middle linebacker and the recovery began. Trotter had left the Eagles in a free-agent huff two years ago, only to resurface this season as a special teams ace and vocal locker room presence.
In reclaiming his old job in Week 10, Trotter slapped a sneer on the face of a defense that increasingly had been viewed as soft - especially against the run - since his departure in 2002.
When the Eagles (13-3) meet the Minnesota Vikings (9-8) today at Philadelphia's Lincoln Financial Field in an NFC semifinal game, that defense faces perhaps its biggest challenge since Pittsburgh.
The challenge is to harness Vikings quarterback Daunte Culpepper and keep Randy Moss' circus act out of the end zone. The tasks go hand-in-hand.
"When you go into a game like this, you have to worry about No. 11 [Culpepper] first at quarterback, and of course No. 84 [Moss] is a guy you have to pay attention to the whole game," Eagles defensive coordinator Jim Johnson said in a news conference last week.
The job of keeping Culpepper under control will fall largely to defensive end Jevon Kearse as a quasi-linebacker on third down; the job of defending Moss goes to third-year cornerback Lito Sheppard. The attitude, though, comes from Trotter.
In the Eagles' first eight games before Trotter became a regular, the defense allowed 130.6 rushing yards per game and an average rush of 4.7. In the six games after he took over, the Eagles allowed 83.5 rush yards a game and 3.5 a carry. (The last two games are irrelevant because the Eagles played with a hodgepodge lineup.)
"I think we've improved a lot, especially the mentality of the defense," Trotter said of the difference in the Eagles today and the team that beat the Vikings, 27-16, in Week 2. "We've always had guys that could play. I just think the mentality changed.
"That's the difference when you've got more of that attitude in the middle. I bring a lot of attitude. I also try and make some big plays, too."
The Vikings pushed the Eagles all over the field last September, rolling up 410 total yards and running off 70 plays to Philadelphia's 47. Culpepper completed 37 of 47 passes for 343 yards.
But most of the damage was on shorter routes. Although Culpepper threw 63 completions of 20-plus yards this season, just one came against the Eagles. Moss had eight catches, but only 69 yards.
Culpepper also led the Vikings with 41 rushing yards, compounding the Eagles' problem.
"I think the most important thing is discipline as far as our guys staying with their receivers," Johnson said. "I think it's a hard thing to do.
"The guy [Culpepper] will run around, [and] all of a sudden you think you have to come up and make the tackle and you leave a receiver uncovered. He is really good at throwing the ball downfield and finding open receivers."
The Eagles started the season with two unproven cornerbacks in Sheppard and Sheldon Brown. But Sheppard will join safeties Brian Dawkins and Michael Lewis in the Pro Bowl, and Brown isn't far behind.
The Eagles gave up 16 touchdown passes this season, the fewest since allowing 13 in 2001.
Moss is not the only receiver capable of making big plays for the Vikings. They got 68 catches and nine touchdowns this season from Nate Burleson, 47 and eight from ex-Raven Marcus Robinson, and a team-high 71 catches from tight end Jermaine Wiggins.
It's a lot to account for from a team that has lost the NFC championship game the past three seasons, including twice at home. But Dawkins believes the Eagles have a swagger that can make the difference, especially after losing Pro Bowl receiver Terrell Owens to injury.
"We had a swagger last year, too," he said. "We prepared, but we didn't play that way in that last game [a 14-3 loss to the Carolina Panthers]. I just feel like we are a lot looser this year than we were last year.
"To me, that generates a lot more playmaking ability."