Posted by ESPN.com's Matt Mosley
GLENDALE, Ariz. -- The Philadelphia Eagles spent the past two months digging themselves out of a huge hole. So maybe that's why we weren't surprised that it took an 18-point deficit to rouse their competitive spirit in Sunday's NFC Championship Game.
After a dreadful first half in which the Eagles acted as if they'd never seen film of the best wide receiver in football, they came storming back to take a 25-24 lead over Arizona in the fourth quarter. The Big Toaster fell silent and the Eagles were poised to pull off one of the greatest postseason comebacks this side of Frank Reich.
In the end, though, the Eagles didn't leave themselves enough margin for error. The same defense that had carried the team throughout the postseason faltered at the worst possible moment, and the Cardinals escaped with a 32-25 victory.
At some point, the Eagles will look back and take pride in their postseason accomplishments. But on this day, they weren't interested in providing perspective. They let a golden opportunity slip through their hands because they had no answers for the Cardinals' offense in the first half -- or on its game-winning drive.
"I expected the guys to step up, they expected to step up, but it didn't happen," said coach Andy Reid.
After his team amassed eight yards in the third quarter, Cardinals quarterback Kurt Warner dialed up All-Pro wideout Larry Fitzgerald on several key plays on the winning drive, including a remarkable 6-yard catch at the Eagles' 14 with two Eagles defenders hanging on him.
Fitzgerald has emerged as the most dangerous offensive player in the league and the Eagles didn't have anyone capable of defending him. Cornerback Asante Samuel signed a lucrative free agent contract last March because the Eagles thought he could match up with explosive receivers such as Fitzgerald. On Sunday, he wasn't up to the task.
The Eagles should take pride in what they accomplished this season, but Sunday was no time for perspective.
From the start, it was obvious the Eagles didn't respect the Cardinals' running game. Despite their relative success in the postseason -- the Cardinals were last in rushing during the regular season -- Eagles defensive coordinator Jim Johnson flooded the field with defensive backs to account for Warner and the passing game. The Cardinals responded by pounding away with running backs Edgerrin James and Tim Hightower, who combined for 68 yards in the first half.
Fitzgerald had six catches for 113 yards and three touchdowns in the first half. His second score came off a trick play on which J.J. Arrington threw a lateral pass to Warner, who then launched the ball downfield to Fitzgerald. Reserve safety Quintin Demps appeared to be in decent position but got turned around at the last second and fell down at Fitzgerald's ankles. In the somber visiting locker room, Eagles players didn't want to admit they were overmatched, but they were clearly in awe of Fitzgerald.
"He was out of his mind today," said Brown, who was victimized on Fitzgerald's third touchdown. "He's a great player. And I like him because he's not a showman. He does everything in the context of the team."
Later, Brown told me he looked forward to telling his grandchildren about playing against Fitzgerald. Late in the first half, Brown lined up in one-on-one coverage against Fitzgerald at the Eagles' 1-yard line.
In the Thanksgiving game between the two teams, he'd been able to break up a slant route to Fitzgerald in a similar situation. Fitzgerald "started dancing" at the line of scrimmage, and when Brown guessed slant, Fitzgerald caught a fade route for a touchdown.
Even 20 minutes after the game, defensive ends Trent Cole, Juqua Parker, Chris Clemons and Darren Howard sat together near their lockers and angrily discussed the Cardinals' winning drive. A few feet away, offensive line coach Juan Castillo sat alone, his face buried in his hands.
The Eagles insisted they didn't underestimate the Cardinals. They had beaten Arizona by 28 points on Thanksgiving, but Reid stressed all week that they didn't get the Cardinals' best shot.
That didn't happen until Sunday.
Middle linebacker Stewart Bradley spent about 15 minutes attempting to explain what had happened, but he finally settled on a hard reality.
"At the end of the day, they did their jobs and we didn't," said Bradley. "And they're going to the Super Bowl and we're going home."