Eagles QB Donovan McNabb scrambles as the Vikings' Chad Greenway nearly makes the tackle.
MINNEAPOLIS – When it was over Sunday, Philadelphia Eagles safety Brian Dawkins lifted quarterback Donovan McNabb at the locker room entrance, screamed in his ear and shook him like a salt shaker. He mobbed him like the good ol' days – the best days. McNabb knows the ones. So does Dawkins. They are so hard to remember anymore.
But for a moment after Philadelphia's 26-14 win over the Minnesota Vikings, you could see it: blood returning to the extremities, color returning, and pulse strengthening. Maybe it all slips away next week against the New York Giants, but right now, this is a franchise with life again – resurrected by the two qualities that had eluded the Eagles for much of the season: patience and consistency.
"All of the things that we went through, we stayed together," Dawkins said. "We didn't finger point. We didn't say it was this unit's fault or [that] unit's fault. We didn't do that. We carried on. And in the midst of all that adversity built character."
Philadelphia showed that much against the Vikings, hanging with a running game that produced little but eventually rocked Minnesota to sleep. And the Eagles seized that moment to hit running back Brian Westbrook with a perfectly executed screen pass with only seven minutes remaining in the fourth quarter. Seventy-one yards later, the Eagles held their commanding 12-point lead, and had fully resurrected themselves from a 5-5-1 record that had the outside world pontificating about anything and everything – ranging from regime change to quarterback change to a total franchise lobotomy.
Eagles RB Brian Westbrook had a combined 121 yards with one receiving touchdown.
(AP Photo/Jim Mone)
Now the Vikings will undergo that autopsy, with quarterback Tarvaris Jackson's ineffectiveness having doomed Minnesota's playoff fortunes. Jackson was 15 for 35 for 164 yards and an interception returned for a touchdown. But those numbers mask a truly brutal game that saw Jackson pad his passing performance with a game-closing series of check-downs to his running backs.
In essence, the snapshot of the day was that pivotal fourth quarter, in which Philadelphia had done precisely what it set out to do: build a lead, eat clock, and force Minnesota to turn to Jackson as a last resort. The result was a second-half shutout by a defense that has limited opponents to a total of 33 points in its last four games – a stoutness that has been helped by the solid play of McNabb, who has accounted for six total touchdowns and only three turnovers in that span.
"It was good to see the character in the fourth quarter," Eagles coach Andy Reid said. "I thought that was important. I didn't see any panic or reservation not to play aggressive football. I thought the coordinators did an extremely good job sticking with the game plan."
The impressive wrinkles included a defense that struggled against some deft cutback runs by Vikings running back Adrian Peterson, who scored Minnesota's pair of first-half touchdowns. But Peterson would only carry the ball eight times for 17 yards in the second half, largely relegated to a spectator spot by sustained Eagles drives.
McNabb and Philadelphia's offense showed a strict patience at the line of scrimmage in the second half, often letting the play clock eat into the final 10 seconds before snapping the ball. That forced Minnesota's defense to repeatedly reveal where its blitz pressure would be coming from, allowing McNabb to adjust and find pockets for short passes. Meanwhile, offensive coordinator Marty Mornhinweg stuck with a running game despite a remarkable ineffectiveness. Despite the injury absence of Minnesota defensive tackle Pat Williams – a virtual dumpster against the run – Westbrook would only finish with 38 yards rushing.
But those yards came on a patient 20-carry effort that would help set up Westbrook's late-game screen pass. A play in which he caught a five-yard dump, then followed a tide of Eagles that included tight end Brent Celek, guard Nick Cole and a pair of key downfield blocks by wideouts Kevin Curtis and DeSean Jackson. It would be the moment that broke Minnesota's back, shifting momentum and putting Jackson on the spot against an aggressive Philadelphia pass rush.
“ Our whole season comes down to one play. You don’t want to give up a 70-yard screen.”
– Vikings defensive end Jared Allen on Brian Westbrook's fourth quarter touchdown.
"They had been pressuring us throughout the whole game with the linebackers and defensive linemen," Westbrook said. "We called that play at exactly the right time."
"Our whole season comes down to one play," Vikings defensive end Jared Allen lamented. "You don't want to give up a 70-yard screen. If that happens in the first quarter or the first half, you can recover from that. But it happens in the fourth quarter when you're down by two. Until that point we had held them to three field goals, and I thought almost a sense of confusion. We dominated them and we took away what we need to take away, and then that happens."
But it was that moment – and the sense of patience and timing that surrounded it – that fueled the Eagles' sense of pride afterward. For a team that had almost no patience or consistency two months ago, the win had the feel of growth and added momentum. And heading into next week's game against the Giants, the Eagles may need both in ample supply against the defending Super Bowl champions.
Philadelphia will go into that game as settled as it has been all season – with a winning streak in hand, knowing it beat the Giants on the road one month ago, and with the belief that ownership wants both Reid and McNabb to return in 2009. That puts to bed a large part of the drama that plagued the Eagles in the middle of the season, further allowing a win like Sunday to pump new life and confidence into the locker room.
"When you go through those things and no one is pointing at the other guys, now you want to play even more for that person," Dawkins said. "Accountability goes up just a little bit more. Now you feel that if I make a mistake, I'm going to let all of these guys down, because they had my back when I was down.
"All of that is why we were able to win this game."