PHILADELPHIA (AP)—The Carolina Panthers celebrated as if they’ve done this before.
The Philadelphia Eagles dressed in stunned silence, something they’ve certainly done before.
The upstart Panthers became the latest team to torment the Eagles, winning a 14-3 shocker that ended with an injured Donovan McNabb watching helplessly from the sideline.
“We have a bunch of strong-willed guys, and they keep swinging their sword until they get it done,” said Panthers coach John Fox, who engineered the remarkable turnaround from a 1-15 record two years ago.
In two weeks, the Panthers will face New England for the NFL title.
“They aren’t going to be denied,” Fox said.
For the third straight year, the Eagles were denied their first trip to the Super Bowl since 1981. This one was particularly hurtful.
“It’s going to be hard to swallow again,” McNabb said, “To think about this all of the offseason again and try to get over this hurdle. …
“For us to get here three times and not be able to go further, it hurts.”
Rookie Ricky Manning Jr. hurt the Eagles most, getting three interceptions against McNabb, who suffered separated rib cartilage on a second-quarter sack.
“We were attacking all day,” said Manning, also a hero last week when his interception led to the winning touchdown in double overtime against the Rams.
Fox’s fierce defense produced five sacks and one more pickoff, by Dan Morgan.
“We were so physical out there,” said safety Mike Minter, who forced a turnover with a ferocious hit. “We do it all the time.”
“I was ready,” Davis said in a business-like dressing room. “We all were ready.”
The Eagles were not. Again.
They haven’t won a league crown since 1960. They are now the first team to lose three straight conference championship games since the Dallas Cowboys from 1980-82. And they are the first team to host consecutive conference championships and lose both since game sites originally were determined by record in 1975.
“The writing is on the wall,” cornerback Bobby Taylor said. “We pretty much know the chances of what’s going to happen.”
Eight days after ending the Rams’ 14-game home winning streak, the Panthers marched into The Linc and grabbed their first conference crown. They’d gotten this far in 1996, their second season, but lost to Green Bay.
In January, they have routed Dallas at home before their two biggest road victories.
Now, it’s the Patriots, who beat Indianapolis 24-14 earlier Sunday for the AFC title, on Feb. 1 in Houston.
“I’m going to try not to think about the Patriots tonight so I can at least get some sleep,” quarterback Jake Delhomme said. “I don’t want to think about that defense just yet.”
Fox’s opportunistic defense made the difference Sunday, led by a fierce pass rush and third-round draft pick Manning, who tied an NFC championship game record with his three pickoffs. The Panthers hurt McNabb in the second quarter, then destroyed Philadelphia with a powerful display in the third period.
By the final quarter, McNabb was out of the game and the Eagles were out of options.
With McNabb sidelined, Koy Detmer led the Eagles to the Carolina 11, but then forced a throw over the middle that Morgan grabbed.
Overall, McNabb was just 10-for-22 for 100 yards. He could provide none of the heroics of last week, when he rallied the Eagles over Green Bay 20-17 in overtime. This decisive loss will erase the glory of “fourth-and-26,” the play that saved Philadelphia’s season—for one week.
Carolina barely needed Delhomme’s passing and he was a mere 9-for-14 for 101 yards.
Manning’s third interception—off a deflection when receiver James Thrash was hit by Minter—and his 17-yard return were critical. So was the inability of the Eagles’ secondary to make the same kind of plays.
In the first half, despite double coverage, Muhsin Muhammad made a 24-yard touchdown catch for a 7-0 lead.
“That was a play I could have made,” Taylor said. “No excuse. I turned around and it was too late.”
Earlier in the second quarter, on a third-and-1, Foster fumbled, but teammate Jermaine Wiggins pounced on it for a 2-yard gain. Soon after, Muhammad came back for the ball when Taylor and Brian Dawkins didn’t.
Unfazed, Philadelphia marched to the Carolina 23, where McNabb tripped going back to pass and was sacked by Mike Rucker. Shaken with the rib injury, he left for one play, then returned to complete a 10-yard pass to Freddie Mitchell that originally was ruled a drop.
But after coach Andy Reid’s successful replay challenge, David Akers kicked a 41-yard field goal for the Eagles’ only points.
Manning picked off McNabb’s poor pass with 47 seconds remaining in the first half, which ended 7-3.
Manning’s second interception was even more significant. He stepped in front of Todd Pinkston on a third down from the Carolina 18 and McNabb threw the ball directly to him. Manning celebrated with an Ali Shuffle.
He’d deliver the knockout punch a little later and had three interceptions in 9:39.