PHILADELPHIA – After a week of worrying about worst cases and recurring nightmares, after hearing over and over about Superman Vick, after a winter fury of sleet and snow, all those memories, all the ghosts of NFC championship games past seemed to slip into the air like warm breath on this cold, cold day.
In the final minutes of a fabulous fourth quarter, with the Philadelphia Eagles about to put away the Atlanta Falcons 27-10, there was nothing left to do but dance in the aisles here at Lincoln Financial Field.
Who could blame them? This franchise and fan base endured the heartbreak of three consecutive losses in this game. But there would be no drama this time, no doubts, no dread – just a balanced, brilliant, fundamentally sound effort to provide a release of relief.
The Eagles are headed to the Super Bowl. At last. At last. At last.
"I think it made it even more worthwhile that we needed to do it four times to get over the hump," offered coach Andy Reid, brushing snow flakes and confetti bits off his green and white hat after the game.
The Eagles saved their best for last, answering every question every critic could put before them. Their supposed lack of a running game tallied for 156 yards. The receiving corps that blew the NFC championship a year ago – and lost savior Terrell Owens to injury – produced 183 yards and two touchdowns.
But the real star of the show was a Philly defense that hit 'em low, hit 'em high on the road to victory, on the road to Jacksonville, on to the final hurdle, the final summit that has haunted this city. Not since the 1983 76ers has a major pro team here won a championship.
"Obviously I'm excited about the win," McNabb said. "But we're not done."
That's what everyone was saying here in South Philly on Sunday night, but their smiles told another story. This one was going to be savored for a while. This was going to be celebrated by players and fans alike. After three consecutive heartbreakers, why not?
The stark reality of the AFC champion can wait.
"I'm going to have a cheeseburger," Reid said. "How about that?"
If Reid delivers one more win this season he can have just about anything he wants, including the keys to the city. Overlooked in the Eagles' return-to-the-brink story is just how hard it is to get to the brink. Four years in a row, a core group of players and coaches shook off frustration, tuned out second guesses and got to work.
"This team," Eagles owner Jeffrey Lurie said, "[I] couldn't be more proud of them."
When Owens, the star receiver, went down in December with an ankle injury that could have stopped this season in its tracks, the Eagles just got tougher.
"When it's your season," linebacker Jeremiah Trotter said, "nothing's stopping you."
Certainly not Vick on Sunday. The Eagles stacked the box with defenders in an effort to stop the NFL's top rushing team (a meager 99 total yards), hung out in a basic cover 2 package and dared Vick and his receivers to beat them through the air.
"Our No. 1 goal was stop the run," Trotter said. "Although Vick can throw the ball, we wanted him to beat us with his arm."
The Michael Vick Experience produced one interception, no touchdowns and more incompletions (13) than completions (11). Mostly though, the long, game-breaking gallops weren't there. The scrambles were contained. The highlight reel went dead.
Meanwhile McNabb put together the NFC championship game he had long envisioned (17-of-26, 180 yards, two touchdowns). But it was more than the numbers. It was more than the touchdown tosses or clock-grinding drives. When you are in this for the fourth time, it is no longer about individual glory.
Before the game McNabb spoke briefly with his mom, Wilma, his co-star in all those Chunky Soup commercials that seemed a bit awkward since he had never even reached the Super Bowl. The team mother cut to the chase.
"My mom was pretty brief," McNabb smiled. "She said, 'Just win.'"