There’s an old expression in sports that says, “it’s not how you start, but how you finish.”
Over the last month, the Philadelphia Eagles are finishing better than any team in the NFL. Enough so that they’ve got their own Christmas countdown going: Five weeks of football, four games with comebacks, three wins recorded, two division rivals vanquished…and an Eagle atop the NFC East.
What’s even more amazing is that the catalyst of this all is a man whose legacy in the NFL stems from choking in the final minutes of the biggest game of his career: Donovan McNabb.
The seeds of this resurgence were planted roughly 30 days ago, when the Eagles trailed the Chargers by 19 with 1:13 left in the third quarter. Taking advantage of a short field, McNabb led the Birds 54 yards in two minutes and hit Jeremy Maclin for a touchdown.
After a Chargers three-and-out, No. 5 led the Eagles 77 yards on nine plays to cut the lead to five and give Birds fans hope of pulling off the improbable comeback. McNabb went 9-for-10 on the drive (with another completion nullified by penalty), spreading the ball around with an accuracy that surprised even his receiving corps.
Unfortunately, the defense once failed, as the Bolts rallied for a long drive to set up a game-icing field goal and left only 30 seconds on the clock…but the seed was watered.
And in the last four weeks, that seed has blossomed into a trend even John Elway would probably applaud.
It started blooming in Chicago. After Antonio Dixon’s blocked field goal kept the Bears lead at three, McNabb led the troops 62 yards in 5:30 to take what would end up being an insurmountable 24-20 lead. Once again, McNabb was brilliant, going 5-for-6 on the drive and running for a crucial first-down on 3rd-and-1 at midfield.
The following week, the Eagles trailed Washington by eight with just under 12 minutes to go. McNabb marched the Birds 90 yards in four minutes for the score, got the tying two-point conversion on a shovel pass to LeSean McCoy, and then led a second 66-yard drive for the game winning field goal.
After a “week off” against Atlanta, the Birds entered the final frame against the Giants up 37-31 in a game that featured defense even Tecmo Bowl enthusiasts would be ashamed of. Already having blown a pair of two-touchdown leads, the Eagles knew they would need a third to ensure a victory.
What did you think was going to happen?
The defense came up huge on the Giants’ first possession of the quarter, and McNabb led the Birds on a 12-play, 91-yard drive that chewed up half the period and salted the game away. Yet again McNabb was brilliant, going 6-for-6 for 57 yards and hitting Jason Avant for a two-point conversion.
Yes, the running game has helped, but when they needed him most, McNabb lifted the team that ranks 30th in the league in rushing up on his shoulders and carried them to four straight wins.
He didn’t play the final frame in Atlanta, so going back to the Chargers game, McNabb’s numbers are Madden-esque in the fourth quarter: 28-for-36 (a 77.8 completion percentage) for 323 yards with three touchdowns, one pick and a pair of two-point conversions.
That’s one hell of a game—and one hell of a passer rating—on its own. But when you consider that those lines helped earn two victories, nailed down a third and nearly stole a fourth, there’s only one word you can use to describe them: Clutch.
For the last month-plus, McNabb has come up big when his team needed it most.
And now, thanks to their late heroics, the Birds are 9-4 and sit in first place in the NFC East with three weeks to go. A win over San Francisco this Sunday all but locks up a playoff berth, and that win combined with a Dallas loss will all but lock up the division.
With the way the Birds are playing, the longest-tenured Eagle may finally have another chance to vanquish that big spectre that hangs over his head.
He’s certainly had plenty of practice.