Dawkins will make his much-anticipated return to the City of Brotherly Love on Sunday wearing his familiar No. 20 with the Denver Broncos when they take on the playoff-bound Eagles.
Philadelphia (10-4) opted not to bring back the seven-time Pro Bowl safety after last season, causing angry fans to voice their displeasure with the loss of a player whose popularity surpassed any Eagle in recent memory. Drafted with the last pick of the second round in 1996, Dawkins quickly became the stalwart of a secondary that helped Philadelphia reach five NFC championship games.
The Broncos (8-6) will have their defense introduced before Sunday’s game, giving the notoriously tough Philadelphia crowd a chance to shower Dawkins with affection.
“Obviously it has crossed my mind what it’s going to be like,” Dawkins said. “Whatever it is, I know they’ve appreciated me just like I’ve appreciated them over the years, so I don’t expect anything crazy.”
While letting Dawkins leave became a major issue locally, the Eagles have moved on well without him and are the hottest team in the NFC with five straight wins. Philadelphia clinched its eighth playoff berth in 10 years with last week’s 27-13 win over San Francisco.
The Eagles’ defense ranks 11th overall, and its 23 interceptions are tied for the third-most in the league.
“You’re talking about the greatest safety ever to put on an Eagle uniform, so you’re not looking to replace Brian Dawkins,” Philadelphia coach Andy Reid said. “What our defense has done is everybody has picked it up and played a little bit better to fill in for losing a great player like that.”
Dawkins has made a huge difference on a Denver defense that was fourth-worst in the NFL last season. Dawkins has turned in a Pro Bowl-caliber season with 100 tackles to help the Broncos’ defensive unit rise to No. 3 in the league.
Philadelphia can win the NFC East with a victory coupled with a loss by Dallas to Washington on Sunday night. Denver (8-6), meanwhile, currently holds one of two wild-card spots in the AFC and can ensure a postseason berth by winning its final two games.
“This is not just about me going back home,” Dawkins said. “This is about the Denver Broncos going into Philadelphia, a tough place to play, against a very good football team. That’s where our focus needs to be.”
Dawkins should see a familiar face running at him in former Pro Bowl tailback Brian Westbrook(notes), who has been cleared to play after recovering from two concussions that caused him to miss the last five weeks. Westbrook will likely have a limited role in the offense, sharing plays with halfback LeSean McCoy(notes) and fullback Leonard Weaver(notes).
“We’ll see how his numbers go and how he feels,” Reid said of Westbrook on Friday. “I’ll stay in communication with him throughout the game. He’ll have a chance to play. He’s done well this week.”
The returns of Dawkins for Denver and Westbrook for Philadelphia have made Donovan McNabb(notes) almost an afterthought Sunday. McNabb has thrown for an average of 264.6 yards with a total of seven touchdowns during the Eagles’ winning streak.
The quarterback is more concerned with Dawkins’ impact on the field than his reception from the fans.
“I don’t get caught up in the whole ordeal that some people made it,” McNabb said. “I’m sure everybody will be excited about it. I’m very excited about seeing him and competing against him, but my main focus is going to be what I have to do to try and win this game.”
Denver has lost two straight, including last Sunday’s surprising 20-19 home defeat to Oakland. During their 6-0 start the Broncos averaged 132.7 rush yards, but that number has dropped to 87.5 per game over the last two weeks.
That’s put more pressure on Kyle Orton(notes), whose 17 touchdown passes are one shy of his career-best total from last season with Chicago. He’s concerned about an Eagles defense that has forced 36 turnovers.
“They blitz so much that you have unblocked guys coming at the quarterback and the quarterback has to get the ball out,” Orton said. “There’s no question about that.”
One player Orton won’t throw to is wide receiver Eddie Royal(notes), who was ruled out Friday due to neck and hand injuries. Royal is a distant second on the club behind Brandon Marshall(notes) with 37 catches.
Dawkins isn’t the only former Eagle returning to Philadelphia this week. Broncos tailback Correll Buckhalter(notes) is set to come back from an ankle injury to face the team for which he played his first eight seasons. Buckhalter endured three major knee injuries while serving mostly as Westbrook’s backup in Philadelphia.
The Eagles, who trail NFC North champion Minnesota by one game in the race for a first-round bye, have made it clear there’s room for only so much sentiment.
“Our team understands that we’re not playing Buck and Dawk, but we’re playing the Denver Broncos,” Reid said. “They know that they need to study the team as opposed to studying those two players and that’s what they are going to do.”