Playing with house money, Eagles' run continues

January, 4, 2009
1/04/09
11:41
PM ET
 
 Bruce Kluckhohn/US Presswire
 Quarterback Donovan McNabb delivered a clutch performance to lead the Eagles past the Vikings, 26-14.

Posted by ESPN.com's Matt Mosley

MINNEAPOLIS -- The Philadelphia Eagles weren't supposed to be here, and that may be part of the reason they have just as good a shot as anyone to reach the Super Bowl. It seems so long ago that we buried this team following its December loss to the Washington Redskins.

In Sunday's 26-14 wild-card playoff win over the Minnesota Vikings, the Eagles served notice that they like playing on borrowed time. Coach Andy Reid made a good-faith effort (by his standards) to run the ball against a stout Vikings defense, but he eventually put the ball in the hands of Donovan McNabb. The perpetually embattled quarterback responded with a clutch performance, and Jim Johnson's blitz-happy defense did the rest.

The Eagles now face the New York Giants in a divisional playoff game next Sunday in the Meadowlands. The last time they were there (Dec. 7), they dominated the Giants in a 20-14 win. But we'll have more on that in my next 62 blog entries.

On Sunday in Minnesota, McNabb and Reid served notice that they're not going anywhere. The topic of their futures in Philadelphia should be off limits -- at least until next Sunday evening. McNabb finished 23 of 34 for 300 yards, one touchdown and an interception. But his two biggest throws of the game didn't come on scoring drives.

With the Eagles facing third-and-11 from their 4-yard line early in the second half, McNabb fired a rocket to Jason Avant for 12 yards on what was supposed to be a crossing route. Avant could tell he couldn't make it across the middle because of traffic, so he put on the brakes. McNabb planted the ball in Avant's chest.

McNabb threw for three more first downs on the drive, and the Eagles ended up punting from the Vikings' 43. With the way the defense was playing, that was good enough. And with his team once again pinned on its 4-yard line early in the fourth quarter, McNabb once again found Avant for a 12-yard pass. That drive ended at the Eagles' 46, but in a game in which field position played a vital role, those two drives helped extend the Eagles' season.

"They were very big, very big," McNabb said of the drives. "We weren't able to go down and put up points, but what we were able to do was eat up clock, keep their defense on the field and back them up so that they had to start backed up on the 5- or 10-yard line."

In a game that featured two top-five defenses, we shouldn't be surprised that McNabb completely outclassed Tarvaris Jackson. Other than an interception late in the first half that basically served as a punt, McNabb played mistake-free football. He connected on one deep pass to rookie DeSean Jackson, but for the most part, he simply took what the Vikings gave him. And despite the fact that Brian Westbrook was bottled up for most of the game, the Eagles kept dialing him up until the running back finally shut the door on the Vikings by taking a screen pass 71 yards for a touchdown.

Westbrook looked as if someone was controlling him with a joystick (Atari for my generation), and his arrival in the end zone set off a wild celebration along the Eagles' sideline. Until that point, the Vikings had held the Eagles' offense to three field goals, and All Pro defensive end Jared Allen had collected two sacks, each followed by his patented calf roping celebration, which appears so much easier without a calf involved.

"Our whole season comes down to one play," Allen said. "We dominated them and we took away what we needed to take away, and that happens."

I still think the Eagles win Sunday's game without Westbrook's touchdown, but it certainly created some breathing room. With a 23-14 lead, the Eagles eliminated Adrian Peterson as a factor over the final six minutes. And save for a brilliant 40-yard touchdown in the first half, the Eagles did a superb job of containing Peterson.

This is exactly the type of game the Eagles would've found a way to lose earlier in the season. There would've been a dropped pass, a delay of game or a bizarre call on third-and-short. But this looks like a different team. And it all starts with the quarterback.

"Basically, he put this team on his back," said Westbrook of McNabb. "We really didn't have much of a running game, but he threw the ball down the field. He stood there and faced the blitz. That's what you expect from a superstar quarterback."

Jackson rises to the occasion
Jackson said he felt a little "shaky" just before kickoff. He'd been warned about the higher intensity level in the playoffs, but he said it didn't hit home until he observed players on the opening kickoff.

"The speed was different than what I've seen in any other game," he said.

Fortunately for the Eagles, Jackson settled down and ended up making a huge contribution. His 62-yard punt return set up the Eagles' first field goal and his 34-yard catch put the Eagles in position to take a 9-7 lead in the second quarter. Jackson later added a 30-yard punt return up the left sideline to give the Eagles the ball at the Vikings' 40. After doing a live shot with a Japanese film crew, he told me that he watched film of Reggie Bush returning two punts for touchdowns against the Vikings earlier in the season.

"[Bush] broke two returns and tripped on the third or he would have had another," Jackson said. "That punter out-kicks their coverage and that makes things really tough on them. But my punt return team also did a phenomenal job."

Some of you might recall that Jackson was one of the goats in a 10-3 loss to the Redskins last month that appeared to knock the Eagles out of the playoffs. He dropped a couple of deep balls after openly complaining that McNabb missed him on a couple of plays earlier in the game. Jackson said that Reid and McNabb both made it a point to encourage him the following week in practice.

"I went up and told Donovan not to stop throwing my way," Jackson said. "He said, 'I'm gonna need you,' and he turned out to be right."

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