Three days before the NFC Championship Game, Philadelphia Eagles wide receiver Freddie Mitchell was having dinner at a Center City steak house when he was interrupted by an anxious fan. A man in a business suit walked over to the table, shook Mitchell's hand and told him, with feeling, "We've just got to have this one, Freddie. Good luck on Sunday." Mitchell cut another piece of his rib eye and explained what life's been like in Philly after three straight defeats in the NFC title game, the last two at home. "I believe the loss to Carolina last year hit some people harder than anything since 9/11," Mitchell said. "You had to be here to feel the pain. All you saw around town were broken hearts." But after dinner a buoyant Mitchell pointed his Mercedes toward his South Jersey home and cranked up the volume on one of his favorite anthems, singing every word of Don't Stop Believin', the moldy oldie by Journey. Despite those January disappointments and the weighty expectations of a fanatic following, Mitchell and the Eagles were brimming with confidence heading into a meeting with the Atlanta Falcons. The defensive coordinator, Jim Johnson, who hadn't coached in an NFL title game in 19 years in the league, felt so good about his unit that he told his wife last week to make travel plans for Jacksonville, site of Super Bowl XXXIX. The quarterback, Donovan McNabb, felt so good about his game that he wanted the first play against Atlanta to be one he had screwed up twice in the divisional playoff the week before.
The coach, Andy Reid, felt so good about his team's preparation that his speech on the eve of Sunday's game was even more sedate than usual. "Enjoy the moment," he told his players. "Enjoy playing together. Do what you do."
On a day fit for neither man nor passing game (26-mph winds pushed the windchill to -5), Philadelphia's suspect running game outgained the No. 1 rushing attack in the league, 156 yards to 99. McNabb dodged the Atlanta pass rush and kept drives alive with his arm and his legs, converting seven of 14 third-down plays; he threw three- and two-yard touchdown passes to tight end Chad Lewis. But most important, Johnson's defense bottled up Atlanta's Xbox quarterback, Michael Vick, better than any other team had all season. The 27-10 win sent Philadelphia (15-3) to the Super Bowl for a showdown with New England (16-2) on Feb. 6.
the eagles, who haven't won an NFL title since 1960 and hadn't advanced to the big game in 11 playoff appearances after reaching the 1981 Super Bowl, had become sort of a football version of the Boston Red Sox. "The jinx is gone," said Pennsylvania governor Ed Rendell, the former Philadelphia mayor and a passionate Eagles fan who has season tickets. "It's a tremendously liberating win. You have to understand that this is a city that loses everything in sports. There were people hugging and crying in my section. They were crying tears of joy."
They were thrilled about how the game was won too—with one of Johnson's best defensive game plans. (Here's how much this city loves its defense: More fans at Lincoln Financial Field wear the number 20 jersey of punishing free safety Brian Dawkins than the 5 of McNabb.) Though known for his exotic blitz packages, Johnson reasoned correctly that blitzes wouldn't beat a firecracker like Vick, but containment would. So he sent extra pass rushers on only eight to 10 plays and, prompted by a suggestion from defensive line coach Tommy Brasher, flopped his defensive ends. Vick loves to run left, Brasher figured, so why not move the quicker of the two ends, Jevon Kearse, to that side and have a better chance of penning in Vick?
The jinx is gone. It's a tremendously liberating win. You have to understand that this is a city that loses everything in sports. There were people hugging and crying in my section. They were crying tears of joy.Ed Rendellx
Other than that tweak, Johnson didn't see the need for anything else imaginative to stop the man rapidly becoming the most explosive running quarterback ever. There was little blitzing, no stunts along the line (looping an end into a tackle hole, for instance, could put pressure on Vick in the pocket but also might leave a gap for him to run through) and only a moderate pass rush. When Kearse and fellow end Derrick Burgess rushed, they were under instructions not to allow Vick to get to the outside. And the tackles and the linebackers were told not to run wide around a blocker to get into the backfield; it was better to be blocked than to leave a hole.
In 17 games this season, including a divisional playoff win over the St. Louis Rams, Vick had rushed 128 times for 1,021 yards, a whopping 8.0-yard average. On the Falcons' first series against the Eagles, he was hemmed in twice by Burgess for a pair of two-yard gains. "You sort of play him like a basketball player," said Burgess, an oft-injured fourth-year man from Mississippi. "You watch his waist and don't go for any fakes."
On the third series, still avoiding Kearse, Vick fooled Burgess with a superb play-action fake and sprinted around right end for nine yards. Two plays later he jitterbugged past two would-be tacklers and went up the middle for 13. And that was it: four rushes for 26 yards. Over the last 47 minutes of play Vick, boxed in perfectly, didn't run the ball once.
Not that he didn't want to get loose. On a pass play early in the fourth quarter, Vick had no receiver to throw to and found himself one-on-one with Burgess. Vick jiggled his shoulders, but Burgess, a quiet guy who gets lost in the shadows of Dawkins and Kearse, didn't bite on the fake and closed in for his second sack. He and Kearse combined for three sacks totaling 31 yards. "We made a pact," Kearse said after the game. "Michael Vick was not going to beat us."
"All I had to do was break contain up the middle," Vick said, "but they have very good defensive linemen up the middle [Darwin Walker, Corey Simon] and three linebackers who came to play." Funny, but Vick didn't even know the name of his biggest tormentor of the day. Of the Philly defensive ends, he said, "They had Jevon Kearse on one end and another good defensive end [Burgess] on the other side."
while the wind and cold bothered one quarterback—Vick completed 11 of 24 passes for 136 yards, throwing one interception and putting a few other balls up for grabs—McNabb was on top of his game. At practice last Friday, Reid had asked McNabb what he'd like to run on the first play against the Falcons. "I never do that," Reid said after the game. "I always make up the script for our first 15 plays, but I wanted to see what he was thinking. He really surprised me. He said, 'Fox 2 Double Short Comeback.'" A quick-out pattern by Todd Pinkston.
"I said, 'You're kidding. That's the last play I thought you'd call,'" Reid said. "He sort of blew that play twice last week, but here, in the biggest game of the year, it's the play he wants to start the game with. That kind of tells you a little bit about the guy, doesn't it?"
This time McNabb made the play, a 13-yard strike, look easy, and afterward he said it was the most important offensive call of the game. "It set the tempo," he explained. "It showed we weren't going to sit back and play conservative in this weather."
That drive stalled, but Philadelphia scored touchdowns on its second (a Dorsey Levens four-yard run) and third (Lewis's nimble three-yard TD catch) possessions to take a 14-10 halftime lead. Two David Akers field goals and Lewis's second touchdown grab with 3:21 left sealed the win. (Lewis suffered a severely sprained left foot on that play, was scheduled for surgery on Wednesday and will miss the Super Bowl.)
On the way to their locker room afterward, Eagles players chanted, "One more! One more!" Watching the AFC Championship Game on the TV in his office, Reid got a glimpse of how hard it will be to win one more. "What happened?" he said, looking up at the score. "I go into the shower, and the Patriots are up 10-3. Now it's 24-3. What's going on here?" A Tom Brady touchdown pass and a Rodney Harrison interception return for a touchdown, that's what. "Amazing," Reid said of the Pats. "That is one amazing football team."
As Mitchell said after New England had polished off the Pittsburgh Steelers, "Beating the Patriots won't be a cakewalk, but we need [to win the Super Bowl] for closure. We need it to be a great team."
"This is a city that loses everything in sports," said Rendell. "There were people hugging and crying in my section."