The central figure in the Vikings' first playoff game in four years is not the NFL's leading rusher and fumbler, not the mercurial young quarterback, not Pat Williams and his busted shoulder or a sympathetic Minneapolis judge and his injunction or Jared Allen and his mullet or a mustachioed coach and his play chart.

No, the central figure in Sunday's game at the Metrodome is Eagles quarterback Donovan McNabb, through whom the most compelling story lines flow.

In this game McNabb is Kevin Bacon, and most who matter fall within six degrees of separation.

The Eagles chose McNabb with the second pick in the 1999 draft. Cleveland has never quite recovered from taking Tim Couch with the first pick, and the Bengals chose Akili Smith (No. 3) and the Bears took Cade McNown (No. 12). The Vikings, at No. 11, landed Daunte Culpepper, who would face McNabb in the 2004 division playoffs.

McNabb won that game, and took the Eagles to their only Super Bowl appearance since Dick Vermeil and Ron Jaworski departed, so the Eagles fans who jeered the draft choice because they preferred Texas running back Ricky Williams have long since been proved wrong.

In 1999, a nondescript coach named Andy Reid became the Eagles' head coach and hired Wisconsin offensive coordinator Brad Childress as his quarterbacks coach.

Reid and McNabb would revive the Eagles, the Eagles would become recognized as a model NFL franchise, and the reputations of the franchise and the quarterback would lead to Childress becoming a top coaching prospect in the winter of 2004-2005.

Childress so perfectly fit the Wilfs' notions of a post-Love Boat football coach that they wouldn't even let him leave town for Green Bay after his interview, hiring him immediately.

Without McNabb, Reid would not be traveling to the Metrodome today. Without McNabb, Childress might have remained among football's legion of faceless assistants. Without McNabb, Childress and the Vikings scouts might not have found themselves so impressed with a quarterback from Alabama State who could fairly be described as a poor man's McNabb.

When Childress began working with Jackson, he hoped to mold him into a version of McNabb, an athletic quarterback who could buy time and first downs with his feet when Childress' run- oriented version of Reid's West Coast offense broke down.

What's most interesting about this matchup -- McNabb vs. Jackson -- is that, strangely, neither playoff quarterback is assured of keeping his job.

Jackson followed 2 1/2 dynamic games with two erratic ones, alternating big plays and drastic mistakes, leaving his future in doubt even as he engineered a comeback victory over the Super Bowl champs on Sunday.

In terms of uncertainty, Jackson might finally have emulated McNabb, who is returning to the playoffs during a season in which he was yanked from a game at halftime, prompting speculation that the Eagles would consider replacing him for good.

On the surface, this seems absurd. McNabb is a franchise quarterback in the midst of a long-term contract, but he plays quarterback in Philadelphia, home of the world's angriest fans, and he plays quarterback in the NFL, where every success begs further success.

Sunday, the Eagles beat Dallas 44-6 to qualify for the playoffs. Today McNabb is the reestablished star quarterback of a surging team, so Vikings fans hoping a victory over Philadelphia would lead McNabb to Minnesota might as well go back to cheering for their NordicTrack stock to rebound.

But as the coaches like to say, it's a week-to-week league. A month ago Brett Favre's mug was bound for Broadway billboards; now he might never play again.

A month ago, McNabb felt like a scapegoat, and today he feels ... like a scapegoat. "They've thrown me out, ran over me, spit on me, but you know what, I continue to prevail," McNabb said Sunday night.

That sounds haughty, but where would Reid, Childress, Jackson and the Eagles be without him?

Jim Souhan can be heard Sundays from 10 a.m.-noon on AM-1500 KSTP