The Philadelphia Eagles showed up to the NFL Playoff party two weeks ago, practically uninvited, and it doesn’t appear that they will be leaving anytime soon.
The Eagles’ season appeared to be all but over in November after a dismal three-game stretch. It began with another divisional loss to the New York Giants. It was followed by a 13-13 tie to the Cincinnati Bengals. And finally, a 36-7 drubbing by the Baltimore Ravens in a game Donovan McNabb was benched at halftime by Coach Andy Reid.
The Eagles found themselves in last place in the NFC East with a 5-5-1 overall record (0-3 divisional record) and looked like a team in disarray that might need to explore a new direction.
Andy Reid was quick to announce that McNabb would resume his role as the starting quarterback later that week against the Arizona Cardinals, but it was a hard pill to swallow for the organization and its fans. The damage had already been done.
It has been said that the benching was used solely to motivate the struggling quarterback, and not to explore what they had in backup Kevin Kolb. It left many wondering what would have happened if Kolb had performed even adequately that afternoon.
The benching clearly hurt McNabb, and whether it was "coincidence" as he continues to suggest, Donovan and the Eagles caught fire against the Cardinals later that week. They won the game 48-20 and followed-up the performance with convincing victories against New York, Cleveland and Dallas in subsequent weeks.
Some say Reid’s move was genius and others called it risky. Whatever it was, in his wildest dreams Reid could not have predicted this outcome. After an unlikely combination of wins courtesy of the Oakland Raiders and Chicago Bears, the 9-5-1 Philadelphia Eagles were propelled into the playoffs.
It has been a remarkable turnaround, and it’s perfectly clear that McNabb has been a big part of it. The Eagles ebb and flow with their offensive leader, and that chip on his shoulder has grown to be the size of Pennsylvania.
As a sixth seed, the Eagles have won two road games, the same path the 2006 Steelers and 2008 Giants took on their way to Super Bowl victories.
The Eagles are hoping for more of the same.
The Vikings did a good job containing the running back in the wild-card round, until a 71-yard screen pass sealed the victory in the fourth quarter.
The Giants were able to hold Westbrook without a touchdown in the divisional round, limiting him to 46 total yards, but using up resources to cover Westbrook proved costly and provided scoring opportunities for players like tight end Brent Celek.
The Eagles proved that they have many more ways to win than Brian Westbrook. They also made a statement that they can play against the best defenses, and even when those defenses have some level of success, the Eagles still find a way to win.
Tarvaris Jackson and Eli Manning certainly didn’t help their teams’ cause. Both quarterbacks were terrible against Philadelphia, but considerable credit needs to be given to defensive mastermind Jim Johnson. His blitz packages created tremendous pressure in their respective games.
It also turns out that Eli Manning is much less effective when he doesn’t have a big target like Plaxico Burress or David Tyrees’ helmet to throw the ball to. On Sunday, even an eight-foot Plax wouldn’t have been able to do much with Mannings’ errant passes.
The Eagles have been far from mistake free in the first two playoff games. McNabb turned the ball over twice in each game, but never in a critical situation. The defense was always there to pick him up, and he made more than enough of his own big plays to get the job done. I suppose that is the benefit of being a multi-dimensional football team.
This weekend, the Eagles once again face the Arizona Cardinals, this time for the right to represent the NFC in the Super Bowl.
The NFC Championship Game is a familiar place for the Eagles, as they make their fifth appearance in the last eight years. More often than not, this game has provided a cruel and fizzling end to a terrific season. The Eagles have advanced to the Super Bowl only once in the past 10 years, in 2004-'05.
Philadelphia is a favorite among odds-makers and analysts as they look ahead to the Super Bowl, but I am certain the veteran leadership on this team will not let any player do this.
There are plenty of haunting reminders for the Eagles to draw from, too many missed opportunities, and too many players with a realization that this could be their last/best chance for a Championship.
The memory that is most haunting to me as a fan is the 2002 NFC Championship game. The Eagles were in their second straight championship game, first as a home favorite.
The Eagles faced a Tampa Bay Buccaneers’ team who they had beaten four straight times. They had beaten them during the regular season, they had beaten them in the playoffs the previous season, they owned the Buccaneers and it was a game they were destined to win.
The Eagles struck first with a touchdown in the first minute of the game, but it was Tampa Bay who would provide most of the scoring. Brian Mitchell ran back a kickoff for a touchdown, Joe Jurevicius (who I still resent more than any player) was the recipient in a 71-yard passing play, and the Buccaneers ran away with the game.
They dominated the Eagles 27-10 and went on to win the Super Bowl.
Was it overconfidence or inexperience that cost them the game? Who knows. One thing is for sure, the 48-20 thrashing of the Arizona Cardinals on Thanksgiving is not being viewed by Eagles players as anything more than another regular season victory.
The players know that none of those points carry over to this weekend, and clearly this is a different Cardinals team than the one they played a few weeks ago.
Kurt Warner is a veteran leader with loads of playoff experience and adversity under his belt, and will do everything he can to have his team ready to play on Sunday.
The Cardinals have been a much better defensive team in recent weeks, but they are not going to be able to control Westbrook like these other teams have done. The Eagles will get a chance to showcase some more offense in addition to the stellar defensive and special teams play they have demonstrated the past few weeks.
The Cardinals will also not be able to count on McNabb turning the ball over six times, as Jake Delhomme did last weekend in their matchup against the Panthers.
Another problem for the Cardinals, is the Eagles are also not the same team they played a few weeks ago when they began this miraculous run. Their confidence and intensity is higher, the defense is playing at an extremely high level, and the elusive Super Bowl trophy is within reach.
The scariest thing about this Eagles team is they continue to get better, and they haven’t even played their best game yet.
Both teams are peaking at the right time, but the Eagles have been here too many times to let this latest opportunity pass, and the Cardinals will be blown over when they try to stand in their way.