The moment the Eagles' season took flight

January, 13, 2009
1/13/09
11:48
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  Chris Faytok/US Presswire
  Eagles quarterback Donovan McNabb has answered his critics, taking Philadelphia to its fifth NFC Championship Game in 10 years.

Posted by ESPN.com's Matt Mosley

It's hard to identify the exact moment when the Philadelphia Eagles decided they had a legitimate chance to reach the Super Bowl, but my best guess is that it happened in the locker room moments before the final regular-season game against the Cowboys on Dec. 28. A bizarre set of events -- highlighted by a Raiders comeback win -- breathed life into a season that had been left for dead at FedEx Field the previous weekend.

Head coach Andy Reid kept his team in the locker room until he was sure it had something other than pride to play for. And the team that took the field that afternoon at approximately 4:15 p.m. ET had been transformed by its good fortune. The Eagles exposed the Cowboys, as quarterback Tony Romo put it, and used a 44-6 win as the jumping-off point for a remarkable playoff run.

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No longer are we asking questions about the futures of Reid and quarterback Donovan McNabb. Sportswriters/bloggers (like this one) who boldly predicted the end of the McNabb era in Philly have been forced to reevaluate the situation. He and Reid have advanced to their fifth NFC Championship Game in the past 10 years, and the coach gushed after the divisional playoff victory over the Giants that McNabb is the best quarterback in the league. At this point, it's hard to bet against the Eagles taking care of the Cardinals and advancing to the Super Bowl, where they'd either face a team they've beaten this season (Steelers) or one with which they have a major score to settle (Ravens).

"We're playing with house money," starting safety Quintin Mikell told me after last Sunday's game. "[The Giants] had the pressure on them. We're not even supposed to be here."

Mikell may have hit on why the Eagles and Cardinals find themselves in such an enviable position. They weren't worried about living up to expectations, because most people didn't have any for them as the playoffs approached.

With the Cardinals, we bought into this theory that teams go belly-up when forced to make cross-country flights -- and there's certainly proof to back that up. But even the miserly Bidwill family isn't chartering flights on Southwest and asking players not to store fur coats in the overhead bin. (On a sidenote, I think Brian Dawkins has been in Michael Irvin's closet again.)

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Dawkins is the emotional leader of this team, and he's currently the city's most beloved athlete. This is no small thing in a community that has lived and mostly died with its local heroes. But maybe the curse that dates back to Philly losing an important document (Declaration of Independence) to division rival Washington has been lifted. After all, the Phillies just won the World Series, so anything seems possible right now.

But how did the Eagles salvage a season that was on the verge of collapse?

"I don't know," said Dawkins. "I think we just believed in one another through the dark times. We didn't allow one another to doubt the next unit. The offense didn't doubt the defense. We have a collective heartbeat, and a collective heartbeat on a team is a very powerful thing."

Most players wouldn't admit it last weekend, but they have to feel good about their chances against the Cardinals Sunday. Philadelphia dismantled the Cardinals on Thanksgiving night, 48-20, and it has the type of defense that can make life miserable for quarterback Kurt Warner.

It was a little disconcerting to see Eagles defensive coordinator Jim Johnson using a cane outside the locker room in the Meadowlands because of back pain, but he'll have a huge effect on Sunday's game whether he's on the sideline or in the press box. It's pretty obvious that Reid, Johnson and the rest of the Eagles' staff outcoached Giants coach Tom Coughlin and Johnson's former pupil Steve Spagnuolo.

Now, Johnson will match wits with Cardinals coach Ken Whisenhunt and offensive coordinator Todd Haley, whose name should start showing up on some head-coaching lists. To this point, many of the Cardinals' players have seemed blissfully unaware of the magnitude of what they've accomplished. And that's a good thing.

But in an NFC Championship Game, give me the head coach and team with the most experience. Reid and his Eagles have played in four of these games, advancing to the Super Bowl once, in 2005. Players such as Tra Thomas, Jon Runyan, David Akers, Dawkins and McNabb have been part of those teams, which gives the Eagles an advantage in my mind. The Eagles also have ball-hawking cornerback Asante Samuel, who was a vital part of the Patriots' success this decade.

"It's awesome," said Samuel, who is now the co-leader among active players with seven postseason interceptions. "I was a free agent, and picking teams is kind of hard. But I couldn't have come into a better situation. We have a great defense, a good team, the fans are great and the city is great."

I know Eagles fans don't want to hear this, but there's some good karma floating around South Philly right now. Who knows? Maybe the Sixers are next.

Just kidding.

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