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Do You Believe?

Jan. 19, 2009
Jan. 19, 2009

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Jan. 19, 2009

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Do You Believe?

Two more wins by the Eagles will turn Philly into a most unlikely Titletown—but first these Giant killers have a date with destiny in Arizona

SHAWN ANDREWS was in Los Angeles recuperating from back surgery in October when the first scenes of bedlam flashed across his television. The Eagles' guard recognized the city of Philadelphia, but the rest of the images were unfamiliar: grown men jumping up and down on rooftops, children clicking cellphone cameras, office workers pressed against windows to watch Cole Hamels and the Phillie Phanatic go by. ¶ As the weeks passed and the Eagles recovered from their midseason struggles, Andrews began to envision a different parade. He changed the color theme from red to green. He replaced Charlie Manuel with Andy Reid and swapped in Donovan McNabb for Ryan Howard. He added an extra million people and one large silver trophy.

This is an article from the Jan. 19, 2009 issue

"It would be a sight to behold," says Andrews, still convalescing but dreaming big after the Eagles' 23--11 knockout of the Giants in Sunday's NFC divisional playoff in East Rutherford, N.J. "I'm talking a 2009 Inauguration kind of crowd."

Thousands of miles remain between a second-round win at Giants Stadium and a second parade in three months down Broad Street, but the Eagles aren't questioning the details of their improbable winter march. Along with their goatees and Grizzly Adams beards—players are letting their facial hair grow in a gesture of team unity—the Eagles have fashioned an airtight defense built on the fundamentals of January football: Stop the run, create turnovers, advance.

On Sunday they outmuscled the defending champion Giants in their own building, forcing Eli Manning into throws off his back foot and stuffing New York's rushing attack late in the game. Twice in the fourth quarter the Eagles stopped New York on fourth-and-short, pushing Manning back on a sneak and pulling down running back Brandon Jacobs short of the first-down sticks. "Once we stopped [Jacobs]," said Eagles defensive end Victor Abiamiri, "you could see the change in mentality on our whole sideline."

The win put the Eagles in the NFC Championship Game for the fifth time in eight seasons, this time in Glendale against the Arizona Cardinals, a team Philadelphia embarrassed 48--20 on Thanksgiving Day at Lincoln Financial Field. Before that game the Eagles were 5-5-1 and coming off a 36--7 loss to the Baltimore Ravens that was memorable for Reid's benching of McNabb in the second half.

Now both men sit just two victories away from sainthood in Philadelphia.

"A few months before the Phillies won the World Series, they were killing Charlie Manuel," says Hugh Douglas, the former Eagles defensive end who hosts a radio talk show in Philly. "Now he's the greatest thing since sliced bread. Everyone said Donovan is known for throwing up [in Super Bowl XXXIX] and choking in the clutch. Look at his numbers. He's a hell of a player. It's going to be interesting to see how this ride plays out."

Andrews, when asked about the criticism Reid and McNabb have faced throughout their careers from Eagles fans, pointed to the future. "You don't miss your water until the well runs dry," he said. "When the [fans] sit back whenever Donovan's done, five, 10 years down the road, they'll be like, Wow, that guy was great. They're going to miss him. Same with Coach Reid. They're going to miss him when he's not here."

While the hubbub over Reid's benching of McNabb simmered through December, the Eagles' defense was putting together its best performances of the season. In Philadelphia's last four regular-season games (three wins and a loss) opponents scored 14, 10, 10 and six points. At the same time, free safety Brian Dawkins, a 13-year Eagles veteran and seven-time Pro Bowl pick started to become more vocal in the locker room.

"You could just see the emotion," said strong safety Quintin Mikell. "He turned up his play and his speeches. He took us on his back. If for nothing else, we want to get him that championship."

Said Dawkins, who had 10 tackles against the Giants, "I think we just believed in one another through the dark times. We didn't allow one another to doubt the next unit. We have a collective heartbeat, and a collective heartbeat on a team is a very powerful thing."

Defensive coordinator Jim Johnson said last week that his secondary was the deepest he has ever coached, with Dawkins and Mikell at the safeties and Lito Sheppard backing up Sheldon Brown and Asante Samuel on the corners. But it was the unheralded front four—including defensive tackles Brodrick Bunkley and Mike Patterson—that stymied the Giants, sealing off running lanes and forcing New York to settle for five field goal attempts.

"The middle of that defense, that's where it starts, and it goes from there," Reid said. "People say I like to coach on the offensive side. I know you win games on defense and mashing the football."

Johnson immediately recognized that the Giants were a different team without 6'5" receiver Plaxico Burress, who'd caused the Eagles problems for years with his height. When Burress shot himself in the thigh at a nightclub in late November—the Giants suspended him and placed him on the inactive list—Manning lost his favorite target, and the Giants lost a key part of their versatility. With him, they beat Philly; without him, they lost.

"We didn't have anybody we really could match up [against Burress]," Johnson said. "We feel like we have a guy who can match up against [Domenik] Hixon a bit."

The Eagles could also focus more on stopping the run, which they did with a fervor that impressed Jacobs (19 carries, 92 yards). "I would like to say that Philadelphia is us from last year," Jacobs said. "We couldn't come out and match their intensity."

To truly mimic their NFC East rivals' run to the Super Bowl last season, the Eagles will have to win one more road playoff game and then hoist the Super Bowl trophy on Feb. 1 in Tampa. They're halfway there.

After the game on Sunday, Eagles players piled into the visitors' locker room, chanting about going to Arizona, about the critics who buried them long ago and about the work still ahead. Team owner Jeffrey Lurie came in behind them, smiling wide, his cheeks covered with gray whiskers. Only weeks ago it looked like his club was splintering. Now the togetherness was palpable.

"I'm just so proud of Andy and Donovan, the coaching staff and all the players," Lurie said. "The way they reacted to the down parts of the season, which you are always going to have, was with maturity and courage."

Lurie hasn't worn a beard since he was 17, but Dawkins asked him to join the unity effort a month ago. Lurie's response: "Absolutely." The owner vowed to have the beard on Sunday in Arizona when the Eagles face the Cardinals for a berth in the Super Bowl. And he'd love nothing more than to wear it while sitting on a championship float on Broad Street.

PHOTOPhotograph by Al TielemansSTUFF OF CHAMPIONS An early pick by Samuel (left) and a late fourth-down stop on Jacobs highlighted a defensive gem.PHOTOPhotograph by Al Tielemans[See caption above]PHOTODAVID BERGMAN (JACKSON)TEAM TALK Unity is the watchword for DeSean Jackson and the Eagles.