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McNabb rolls with punches on way to title game

Michael Silver
Yahoo Sports

EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. – He is America's favorite pass-happy punching bag, a quarterback who wins games and influences idiots like no other. Be it conservative commentator Rush Limbaugh or beat-up boxer Bernard Hopkins, NAACP leader J. Whyatt Mondesire or former favorite target Terrell Owens – or, let's face it, half the people in Philadelphia – the Eagles' Donovan McNabb seems to bring out the harsh critic in everyone.

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McNabb celebrates his 1-yard scoring pass in the fourth quarter.
(The Star-Ledger/US Presswire)

Call him skittish, call him weak of heart or stomach, call him racially confused, and McNabb brushes it off like a portly pass rusher collapsing the pocket. Suggest that the 10th-year veteran is on the downside of his career, however, and he can no longer remain silent.

"For one to say that I'm not the same anymore, that's just ridiculous," McNabb said Sunday after helping the Eagles to a 23-11 upset of the defending Super Bowl champion New York Giants, setting up an are-you-kidding-me NFC championship game next Sunday between sixth-seeded Philly and the fourth-seeded Arizona Cardinals at University of Phoenix Stadium. "Thirty-two years old is not old. I mean, come on. Look at Kurt Warner. [The '07 Panthers] brought Vinny Testaverde back at [43]. And now they say that I'm a guy who has nothing left – 'Get rid of him.' Trust me – I can still play."

After one of the more amazing bounce-backs in recent NFL history, one which has landed the quarterback in a conference title game for the fifth time in his 10-year career, McNabb didn't have to say this. Actually, it was surprising that he was saying anything, given his season-long policy of not giving one-on-one interviews to anyone but selected TV reporters, mostly quick postgame chats in controlled circumstances.

So much for that: On Sunday we stood near his locker and spoke for more than 10 minutes, discussing his relationship with Eagles coach Andy Reid, which took a major hit after McNabb was benched in the second half of a late-November defeat to the Ravens. McNabb talked about the way he and Reid, two leaders with very different personalities, have transformed a tight team plagued by inconsistency into an unfettered threat to capture the franchise's first Super Bowl championship.

"In a game like this, after all we've been through, you just want to go out and have some fun," McNabb said. "We want to fly around and be stress free and have fun on offense and defense and cheer each other on. To do that, we have to make sure our coaches aren't tight – that they're having fun right along with us. That means I work on Andy in the days leading up to the game, involving him in jokes and trying to keep it light. After all we've been through, there's no reason to be tense."

It is a testament to McNabb's professionalism and focus that, with so much uncertainty still surrounding his immediate future, he has been able to play at a high enough level to guide a wild card to a pair of playoff upsets. Though his numbers weren't overly impressive on Sunday – he completed 22 of 40 passes, threw a pair of interceptions and a touchdown and ran for another score – he was the most commanding presence on a field that included Super Bowl XLII MVP Eli Manning.

McNabb, believed to be on his way out of Philadelphia at the time of his benching, reportedly wants a contract extension after the season, and it's unclear how receptive the Eagles will be. Kevin Kolb, a second-round draft pick in '07, is viewed as the franchise's quarterback of the future, and he might have become the quarterback of the present had he not struggled in the second half of that 36-7 drubbing in Baltimore.

Reid, who had been staunchly supportive of McNabb during a largely successful decade of collaboration, pulled him after halftime, instructing quarterbacks coach Pat Shurmur to break the news of the benching. As a result, the chill on the Philly sideline that day wasn't only a function of the weather.

Reid reinserted McNabb as the starter the following game, and the two men basically have done their best to plow through and pretend the incident never happened. "We addressed it briefly, to the extent that it needed to be addressed," McNabb said.

And the fact that Reid didn't inform him of the benching personally, and what it might say about the state of their relationship? "That's for later," McNabb said. "We'll talk about it after the season."

For now, the quarterback is busy leading an Eagles team that, though somewhat lucky to have made the playoffs, looks every bit as dangerous as the Giants were a year ago during their stirring title run as a wild card.

Next up for Philly is a Cardinals team that the Eagles defeated by 28 points on Thanksgiving night, meaning that a nine-win team (the Cards were 9-7, the Eagles were 9-6-1 thanks to their infamous tie in Cincinnati) will make the Super Bowl for the first time since the '79 Rams lost to the Steelers. "Hey," McNabb said, "don't knock the tie. We needed that tie in the end."

Philadelphia opened as a three-point favorite for next Sunday's game, while the Steelers, who host the Ravens in the AFC championship game, are five-point picks. The Eagles defeated the Steelers in late September, 15-6, sacking Pittsburgh's quarterbacks nine times.

Philly's November victory over Arizona was part of a three-game stretch in which McNabb, somewhat stunningly, led a 5-5-1 team back into the heart of the playoff chase. Then, in the second-to-last game of the regular season, it all collapsed: The Eagles were kept out of the end zone in a 10-3 road defeat to the Redskins that players such as veteran tackle Jon Runyan assumed was a season-killer.

"That was kind of the feeling," Runyan said Sunday. "But at the same time, you knew you could still go out and mess up the Cowboys' season."

By the time the Eagles' season finale against Dallas got under way, two teams ahead of Philly on the food chain had suffered upset defeats – the Bears falling to the Texans and the Bucs getting stunned by the Raiders at home. The Eagles took advantage, clinching the final playoff spot by thrashing the Cowboys, 44-6. Then came last week's first-round victory at NFC North champion Minnesota and a second road upset of the Giants in five weeks.

And here they are: McNabb, proud parent of month-old twins, flashing that infectious smile in a jubilant locker room, and Reid, a.k.a. Big Scruffy, sporting an unkempt beard that seems to shout to the world, "I don't give a damn."

"I think that's kind of like how it is for everybody," McNabb said. "We don't care what you think of us. We're coming together as a team, and that's all that matters. It's not about how you look; it's how you play. Some of us look a little uglier than others."

That last line was a joke, which is typical of McNabb. Talk to him about virtually any subject, and he'll find a way to disarm you with humor and crack up everyone in his midst.

On a day in which McNabb had once again provided the people who criticize his personality with ample ammunition – he was called for a personal foul with three minutes remaining after scrambling out of bounds, picking up a phone on the Giants' sidelines and pretending to have a quick conversation with who knows who – the quarterback was ready for the inevitable barrage.

"I'm gonna get ripped," he said, looking over to teammates DeSean Jackson and Hank Baskett, and a few other amused players dressing nearby. "That is the story of my life. It's something to talk about: 'Donovan, what an idiot.' "

The subject turned to Mondesire, a Philadelphia newspaper publisher who charged that McNabb "played the race card" to explain a decrease in rushing attempts.

"That guy ripped me because I wasn't black enough!" McNabb said, drawing more laughs. "What do you mean, brother? Damn, do I need to hit a tanning salon?"

What McNabb brought the Eagles on Sunday was no joke. He remained virtually impervious to the Giants' potent pass rush, save a second-quarter play in which he was flagged for intentional grounding in the end zone while pressured by Justin Tuck, resulting in a safety that cut the Eagles' lead to 7-5 (and, ultimately, facilitated the first 23-11 final score in NFL history).

For the third time this season, McNabb faced New York without absorbing a single sack, using his nimble footwork and sharp instincts to combat the rush. On the third-quarter scoring drive that put Philly ahead for good, McNabb's ability to keep plays alive twice resulted in remarkable conversions: a 21-yard pass to wideout Jason Avant on third-and-20 and a 19-yard pass to halfback Correll Buckhalter on third-and-10.

After a wicked play fake and perfect touchdown lob to backup tight end Brent Celek put the Eagles up by nine on the first play of the fourth quarter, Philly twice stuffed the Giants on fourth-down running plays, and McNabb got the ball back with 6:28 remaining.

Conventional wisdom suggested it was time to play it safe.

Instead, Reid and offensive coordinator Marty Mornhinweg put the team's fate in McNabb's hands, and he was a stone, cold killer.

On second-and-11, after a one-yard loss by Buckhalter, McNabb faked a handoff and dropped back as Jackson, the electrifying rookie from Cal, ran an outside fade down the right sideline. "D-Jax" got a couple of steps on cornerback Corey Webster, and McNabb dropped a gorgeous ball that the receiver caught in stride and carried to within a yard of the end zone, where he was stopped for a 48-yard gain.

Did McNabb consider checking down to a less risky option?

"Not really," he said. "You've got to let the horses roll."

The horses are rolling, with a jocular jockey riding them for all he's worth.

After Sunday, we know he doesn't like to be called old.

By next Sunday, we may be calling him Super.

I'M HOT CAUSE I'M FLY …

The Cardinals had just finished off what was arguably the biggest win in franchise history when their 37-year-old quarterback doused their enthusiasm like a human cold shower. "Hey, it's exciting, and let's enjoy it for a minute," Warner told his giddy teammates shortly after they entered the visitors' locker room at Bank of America Stadium Saturday night. "But keep it in perspective. Understand what the possibilities are and the position that we're in, and don't squander this." It sounds like a serious buzz kill, but with the way Warner is playing right now, he could probably announce that he had stolen each of his teammates' cars and had them dumped in the Grand Canyon and still have them nodding along in approval. "You're probably right," Warner said Sunday night from his Scottsdale, Ariz., home. "This whole thing is pretty incredible." Now one game away from a third Super Bowl appearance, Warner celebrated the victory by flying all night and returning home at 5 a.m. Sunday. His wife, Brenda, was still in Charlotte, and Warner was awakened after a few hours' sleep when two of his seven kids, son Elijah and daughter Jada, ran around the house screaming at one another. Were they fighting? Were they yelling "Go Cardinals!"? "Neither," Warner said. "They were just screaming because, you know, that's what kids do." They're not the only ones screaming in the desert: On Sunday night the Cardinals, who needed an extension from the NFL to avoid a blackout for their first-round playoff game against the Falcons, announced they had sold out the NFC championship game six minutes after tickets went on sale. Come Sunday, you can bet there will be more than 70,000 screaming fans who most certainly are not keeping Arizona's playoff run in perspective.

I suppose we should be incredibly thankful for the Steelers, who on Sunday reminded us that a team's regular-season success can mean something – and that a team that earns a first-round bye and is playing at home can still win at least one playoff game. After a weekend in which three road teams (all underdogs) won for the first time since the 1971 postseason, Pittsburgh restored order by pounding the Chargers (9-9) into submission, 35-24, ending what may go down as the most glorious .500 season in NFL history. The Steelers certainly have a championship-caliber defense, and when they look as potent on offense and special teams as they did against San Diego, it's not hard to imagine second-year coach Mike Tomlin standing on the podium at Tampa's Raymond James Stadium clutching the Lombardi Trophy. Of course, those of us who have attended AFC championship games in Pittsburgh can easily imagine the Steelers losing next week: From 1994-2004 they hosted five AFC title games and lost four of them, and they had to survive a Jim Harbaugh Hail Mary to avoid going 0-5. Don't worry, superstitious Steelers fans – I'm staying away this time, as I did three years ago when they went to Denver and blasted the Broncos.

The team standing between Pittsburgh and Tampa, the Steelers' AFC North rivals from Baltimore, also has a championship-caliber defense. So, too, did the Titans, who fell to the Ravens on Saturday, 13-10, because Baltimore forced three huge turnovers that ended Tennessee scoring opportunities. The Ravens battled the Steelers toe-to-toe in a pair of narrow losses during the regular season, including one that came down to a disputed call, and they're certainly good enough to rise up and win this one. Here's the problem, however: Like Pittsburgh and Baltimore, Tennessee exacts such a physical toll on its opponents that they can't help but be depleted for their next game. Among the banged-up Baltimore players on Saturday were fullback Le'Ron McClain (ankle), pass-rushing linebacker Terrell Suggs (shoulder) and cornerback Samari Rolle (groin) – and everybody is sore. But don't rule out the team coached by Jim Harbaugh's brother, John. If you saw that hellacious, helmet-dispossessing hit Ray Lewis put on Tennessee fullback Ahmard Hall in the second quarter, you know what the Ravens are about.

… YOU AIN'T CAUSE YOU'RE NOT

Well, it turns out the Giants do miss Plaxico Burress after all. And Osi Umenyiora. And Michael Strahan. Especially Strahan. Hey, careers end and guys get hurt and people accidentally shoot themselves with unregistered weapons in clubs all the time; that's part of football. (Well, maybe not the shooting part …) But it's tough to win in the playoffs when too many of your difference-makers aren't in uniform, and for all the talk about the Giants' chemistry and teamwork and winning system, not having their most potent offensive playmaking threat was a severe blow. Just as the Titans struggled to score once their only offensive game-breaker, Chris Johnson, went to the sidelines with a sprained ankle in the second quarter of Saturday's game, the Giants were kept out of the end zone by an Eagles team that clearly didn't fear any of New York's receivers. Eli Manning (15-of-29, 169 yards, two interceptions) looked like the inconsistent passer he was before his stirring '07 playoff run, and even though Brandon Jacobs and Derrick Ward combined to gain 138 yards on 31 carries, the Giants were stuffed on fourth-and-short runs on consecutive fourth-quarter drives. My advice to New York general manager Jerry Reese, who is very good at what he does: Get a big-play receiver or two over the offseason.

Back in November, I went to check out the Panthers in Oakland, anticipating a big day for quarterback Jake Delhomme against the lowly Raiders. Instead, I saw the worst game of Delhomme's 10-year career – until Saturday. Somehow, at the worst possible time (and on his 34th birthday), Shaky Jake performed so miserably against the Cardinals that it hurt to watch. Delhomme threw five interceptions and lost a fumble – and, perhaps, his job. With a $1 million roster bonus due in March, according to profootballtalk.com, and another $5.325 million in base salary for '09, Delhomme may have played himself out of Carolina. Given his reported $11 million cap number (the team would save $6.325 million if they release him before paying the roster bonus) and the impending free agency of star defensive end Julius Peppers and left tackle Jordan Gross, the Panthers might choose to clear some cap space and look for a new quarterback. That sounds like a severe reaction, but Delhomme didn't have that great of a season in '08, and the stain of Saturday's performance will be hard for him to erase.

The Titans are hardly the only No. 1 seed to bomb in their playoff opener – this year's Giants, last year's Cowboys, the 2000 Titans (who fell to eventual-champion Baltimore) and so many others in recent years have gone one-and-out – and they arguably ended up with the worst possible draw in having to face the very impressive and physically imposing Ravens. But Tennessee, 4-1 in games decided by seven points or less coming in, made too many crucial mistakes for a team known for its discipline and poise. Some of the errors were obvious, such as the fourth-quarter fumble near the Baltimore goal line by tight end Alge Crumpler. (Is it just me, or does he look more like an offensive tackle these days?) But there were also inexplicable miscues, like the long Joe Flacco-to-Mark Clayton pass to the Tennessee 4 on which two Titans defensive backs fell down, or the Kerry Collins-to-Bo Scaife misfire just before normally dependable kicker Rob Bironas missed a 51-yard field goal. Or the 12 penalties for 89 yards. It's tough to limit a team to nine first downs and lose, but the Titans managed to – and now they'll have to think about it all offseason. The good news? Jeff Fisher's team is built to succeed over the long haul, and Tennessee could be even stronger a year from now. The better news? Adam "Pacman" Jones is no longer associated with the franchise, meaning that when he says things like "I likeded the scrip clubs" Fisher doesn't have to cringe.

TWO THINGS I CAN'T COMPREHEND

1. Why the NFL possibly allowed that 49ers-Steelers game at Candlestick Park to go on as scheduled on Monday night, Nov. 27, 1978. I was reminded of this while watching the fantastic film "Milk" the other night – go ahead and hand Sean Penn the Oscar right now – but it struck me as strange even then as a young 49ers fan: The mayor of San Francisco (George Moscone) and a supervisor (Harvey Milk) were murdered in cold blood in city hall that very day, and while tens of thousands marched by candlelight to honor the slain victims, Paul Hofer was trying to juke Jack Lambert in front of cheering fans in a stadium on city grounds. Arguably, this was worse than the oft-lamented decision by the late, great commissioner Pete Rozelle to play games on the weekend after JFK was assassinated. Unless he and the other powers that be at the time were eating Twinkies by the carton, there is no defense for that 30-year-old decision.

2. How, in a sport that uses instant replay to try to discern the proper spot of a football down to the inch, the play clock could expire more than a full second after the ball is snapped on what is arguably the most important drive of the season – and, after the back judge lamely failed to blow a whistle, there was no mechanism that allowed the mistake to be corrected. In this particular case, the Ravens' Joe Flacco completed a 23-yard pass to tight end Todd Heap that helped set up Baltimore's winning field goal. No big deal – just two passionate teams' seasons on the line. Afterward, referee Terry McAulay told a pool reporter that there is a "natural delay" when the back judge looks from the play clock to the snap. At LP Field, because the play clock is located on the JumboTron, the time that elapses as the judge shifts his gaze can be longer, McAulay explained. The Titans were unable to challenge because the rules of replay did not allow them to, meaning that a play that should never have existed had a pivotal role in their demise. An analogy would be if the NBA's policy on buzzer-beaters was to have the lead official look at the scoreboard and then look back to the shooter before deciding whether the shot is released in time, erring on the side of not stopping the play (as NFL officials are instructed). Hey, I've got an idea (actually, Pro Football Talk's Mike Florio had it first, but I'm repeating it): How about a buzzer? You know, the play clock expires and a loud noise ensues. Revolutionary. As if to underscore the lunacy, as the Giants were driving late in the first half of Sunday's game, they followed a 25-yard Manning-to-Kevin Boss completion with a handoff to halfback Brandon Jacobs, who gained five yards to the Philly 21. But after the fact, the officials nullified the play, ruling that the ball had been snapped before the clock ran down for the two-minute warning. And Titans fans everywhere screamed at their televisions, "Why couldn't that crew have done our game?" Oddly enough, Eagles defensive end Juqua Parker jumped offsides on the next play, as if to say, "Here, take those five yards you gained."

OVER-THE-TOP, EPHEDRINE-LACED DIATRIBE BEFORE DAWN

Under normal conditions, I'm a big John Fox fan. I admire his no-frills coaching style, which is less about the "Cult of Me" than most of his peers, and I think he does a very good job. But apparently Fox is a stubborn man, someone who does not believe in switching up his defensive approach to exploit an opponent, and that strategy (or lack thereof) was absolutely ruinous on Saturday. This wasn't exactly quantum physics: The Cards have a pair of big, physical, Pro Bowl receivers. One of them, Anquan Boldin, was out with a hamstring injury. Logic would suggest that, given Boldin's absence, the best way to deal with the other receiver, Larry Fitzgerald, was to double him frequently, roll a safety to his side of the field, try to throw him off his route at the line of scrimmage and basically dare anyone else on the Cardinals to beat you. Fox and defensive coordinator Mike Trgovac, at least during the first half, did virtually none of that. The Cardinals motioned Fitzgerald frequently, allowed him to get a running start and got him singled up in coverage with cornerbacks or running free in seams inside soft zones. By halftime – halftime – he had six catches for 151 yards and a touchdown, and the Cardinals had a 27-7 lead. I have no idea what Fox was thinking. But I do know what was going through my mind, and that of Jeff Chadiha of espn.com and everyone near us in a Manhattan sports bar – hell, make that everyone else on earth: Yo, Panthers, you might want to start covering No. 11, because he is destroying you. So what now? Fox can either stay stubborn or spend the next seven months second-guessing his approach. I hope it's the latter.

TEXT/IM/EMAIL/VOICEMAIL OF THE WEEK

"Seems like the safety was tryn to stop run all game. Krazy"
– Text Sunday from Edgerrin James, who apparently is as baffled by Fox as the rest of us

"hi. look down and right."
– Text Sunday from ESPN's superb sideline reporter Suzy Kolber, utilizing satellite technology to say hello from about 12 feet away in the Giants Stadium press box.

"Arizona over the Panthers? Let me smoke somma that – Your an idiot – Go write about women's basketball."
– Email Friday from reader T. Gamble