Fourth-and-26 won’t mean much without at least one more win.
A play that has been all the talk in Philadelphia will be an insignificant memory to most Eagles fans unless the team finally makes it to the Super Bowl.
This time the Carolina Panthers stand in the way, looking to become the third team in as many years to end the Eagles’ season in the NFC championship game.
Both teams come off improbable overtime victories to reach this point, though no one at season’s outset predicted Carolina would get within one win of the Super Bowl. Philadelphia faithful expected it, and won’t be happy unless the team takes the next step.
“What happened the past two years is over. There’s nothing we can do,” Donovan McNabb said. “The only thing we can do is focus on what we want to do. We all have high goals and at the top of our list is obviously to win the Super Bowl. In order for us to do that we have to win this game.”
No team has lost three straight conference championship games since Dallas from 1980-82, but the Cowboys won five Super Bowls and went to three others. Philadelphia’s only trip came in 1980, a loss to Oakland.
The Eagles, who fell at St. Louis in the NFC title game two years ago and lost at home to Tampa Bay last season, appeared to be making an even earlier exit from this year’s postseason.
They trailed Green Bay 17-14 in the divisional round with just over a minute left and facing a fourth-and-26 from deep in their own territory, but McNabb somehow hit Freddie Mitchell over the middle for a 28-yard completion. That led to David Akers’ game-tying 37-yard field goal with 5 seconds to go, and he hit a 31-yarder in overtime for a 20-17 victory.
“I’ve heard that around, ‘Catch of the Century,’ all that stuff,” Mitchell said. “I’m just like, let’s get to next week. Let’s get done writing this book.”
One of the most important catches in team history led the Eagles to produce a limited-edition ‘4th And 26’ T-shirt to be sold locally, with the word ‘BELIEVE’ printed on the back.
The Panthers pulled off a stunning win of their own last week, blowing an 11-point lead in the final 2:39 at St. Louis only to win 29-23 in double overtime on Jake Delhomme’s 69-yard TD pass to Steve Smith.
“I think the biggest thing is we stayed calm,” Delhomme said. “Our guys don’t take a deep breath and hope.”
Second-year Panthers coach John Fox is trying to refocus his young team following such an emotional victory, one that put Carolina in its second NFC championship game and first since losing to Green Bay in 1996.
“They don’t need to keep a warm and fuzzy feeling about this last one,” Fox said. “They need to start getting on to this next one, and I believe they will.”
One of Fox’s top concerns is containing McNabb, whose 107 rushing yards last week set an NFL playoff record for quarterbacks. He threw for 248 yards and two touchdowns despite being sacked eight times. He often struggled to find open receivers and needing to scramble—something he did a lot less this season.
“He can survive doing that,” Eagles coach Andy Reid said. “He’s a competitive guy and if it ends up working out that way again, that’s OK. Will we go in feeling that way? No.”
“You can say all you want to take away the throwing option, but then (McNabb) takes off and is running like Eric Dickerson,” said Buckner, the only member of Carolina’s front four who had previously been to the playoffs.
McNabb ran for just six yards, was sacked three times and threw an interception when Philadelphia visited Carolina on Nov. 30, but the Eagles won 25-16. The difference came in the kicking game, with John Kasay missing three field goals and an extra point, while Akers made all four of his field-goal attempts.
Kasay, the last original Panther, missed two more field goals last week.
While Delhomme has played well in his first trip to the playoffs, completing 34 of 55 passes for 563 yards with two TDs and one interception, the rushing attack still keys Carolina’s offense.
Stephen Davis, though, remains a game-time decision due to a strained quadriceps he suffered on a 64-yard run in the second quarter last week. He had been held out of practice all week until returning on Friday, but Fox closed practice to the public and would not reveal much about Davis’ status.
“He looked fine,” the coach offered.
A team possibly losing a player that was the NFC’s third-leading rusher during the season would seem devastating, but that might not be the case for Carolina. DeShaun Foster ran for 95 yards on 21 carries in Davis’ place and appears capable of shouldering the ground game.
“We have a lot of confidence in him,” Fox said. “People don’t know that much about him because he has not had as much playing time, but we don’t feel like we drop off with him in there at all.”
Foster would face a Philadelphia run defense which gave up 156 yards to Ahman Green last week and has allowed a 100-yard rusher in seven of the last nine games. Davis rushed for 115 yards against Philadelphia in Week 13.
Reid and the Eagles abandoned the rushing attack—excluding McNabb’s scrambles—after struggling with it early last week, though Duce Staley had two big runs late in the game. With leading rusher Brian Westbrook sidelined by a torn triceps, Staley and Correll Buckhalter combined for 57 yards on 14 carries.
Philadelphia ran for 124 yards against the Panthers in November, but 64 came from Westbrook.
Though Westbrook and top linebacker Carlos Emmons (leg) are out for the playoffs, the Eagles are likely to welcome back Pro Bowl cornerback Troy Vincent to the lineup. While Vincent sat out last week with a hip injury, backup Sheldon Brown was burned for two long touchdown passes.
HOW THEY GOT HERE: Panthers - NFC South champion; beat Dallas Cowboys 29-10, wild-card round; beat St. Louis Rams 29-23, 2 OT, divisional round. Eagles - NFC East champion; first-round bye; beat Green Bay Packers 20-17, OT, divisional round.
PANTHERS LEADERS: Offense - Delhomme, 3,219 passing yards and 19 passing TDs; Davis, 1,444 rushing yards and 8 rushing TDs; Smith, 88 receptions, 1,110 receiving yards and 7 receiving TDs. Defense - Rucker, 12 sacks; Deon Grant, Ricky Manning and Mike Minter, 3 interceptions.
EAGLES LEADERS: Offense - McNabb, 3,216 passing yards and 16 passing TDs; Westbrook, 613 rushing yards and 4 receiving TDs; Buckhalter, 8 rushing TDs; James Thrash, 49 receptions; Todd Pinkston, 575 receiving yards. Defense - Corey Simon, 7 1/2 sacks; Vincent and Michael Lewis, 3 interceptions.
PANTHERS TEAM RANK: Rushing Offense - 159.9 ypg (3rd); Passing Offense - 202.5 ypg (16th); Total Offense - 362.4 ypg (4th). Rushing Defense - 106.3 ypg (10th); Passing Defense - 212.5 ypg (23rd); Total Defense - 318.8 ypg (17th).
EAGLES TEAM RANK: Rushing Offense - 125.9 yards per game (9th); Passing Offense - 188.8 ypg (20th); Total Offense - 314.7 ypg (18th). Rushing Defense - 129.4 ypg (22nd); Passing Defense - 202.2 ypg (19th); Total Defense - 331.6 ypg (20th).
LAST MEETING: Nov. 30; Eagles, 25-16. At Charlotte, N.C., McNabb overcame an interception on the first play to throw for a touchdown and 182 yards, hitting nine different receivers.
STREAKS AND NOTES: Panthers - QB Delhomme’s passer rating has been above 95.0 in each of the last two weeks. … WR Smith is looking to match an NFL record by totaling at least 100 yards receiving in each of his first three career playoff games. … Carolina is 4-1 this season in overtime games, including last week’s win. Eagles - QB McNabb’s two TD passes last week gave him 11 in the playoffs, passing Ron Jaworski (nine) for the franchise record. McNabb has thrown only six interceptions in 287 attempts in postseason play. … RB Staley, who had a seven-yard touchdown catch last week, has scored a TD in five of six career playoff games. … The Eagles won 20-9 in 1996 in Carolina’s only previous visit to Philadelphia.
ROAD/HOME RECORDS: Panthers - 6-3 on the road; Eagles - 6-3 at home.
INJURIES: Panthers - QUESTIONABLE: RB Davis (quadricep). Eagles - QUESTIONABLE: DE N.D. Kalu (ankle). PROBABLE: RB Buckhalter (knee); DE Jerome McDougle (arm); CB Vincent (hip); DE Brandon Whiting (knee).
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