Sunday, December 5, 2004
Eagles distancing themselves in NFC
By Len Pasquarelli
PHILADELPHIA -- The annual Army-Navy matchup was played here Saturday. And then on Sunday, in a victory so stunningly lopsided that not even the most skeptical of longsuffering fans could question the home team's status as overwhelming favorites to represent the NFC in the Super Bowl, the Philadelphia Eagles and Donovan McNabb brought in the air force.
Last season, it took overtime for the Eagles and the Green Bay Packers to determine the outcome of a memorable divisional playoff game. But in halting the Packers' six-game winning streak and turning Green Bay black and blue compliments of a 47-17 thrashing, Philadelphia needed almost no time at all to establish its dominance on this day.
Having already clinched a fourth consecutive NFC East title last week, the Eagles now have set their focus on securing home-field advantage again, and it certainly didn't take long for Philadelphia to manifest its resolve in that matter. The Eagles scored touchdowns on five of their first seven possessions, all on McNabb scoring passes, in assuming a 35-3 halftime lead.
Essentially, the much-awaited showdown between surging NFC teams was over almost before it began.
No one in the Eagles locker room was ready to acknowledge supremacy in a conference as weak as it has been in years, at least not yet, but the opponents set to scrutinize the videotape of the dismantling of Green Bay might opt to instead torch the horror show.
By virtue of their 11th win in 12 games, the Eagles have already earned a bye for the first round of the playoffs. The scope of Sunday's victory, however, coupled with a schedule that concludes with zero opponents with winning records, suggested that there are even better things ahead for an Eagles team that every day goes to work with the burden of three straight NFC championship game losses.
Perhaps the upstart Atlanta Falcons, with the NFL's most breathtaking playmaker in Michael Vick, could present a legitimate challenge. But the Falcons' flaws, an offense that is still a work in progress and often sputters like an engine trying to crank on a cold winter morning, were demonstrated again Sunday afternoon. The Packers, basically the hottest entry in the conference, were supposed to present a hurdle. But the Eagles raced past them like a team of Renaldo Nehemiah wannabes.
So who might stand in the way of the Eagles and their date with destiny? Well, if Sunday was any kind of indicator, no one. In fact, about the only doubt surrounding Philadelphia was how long coach Andy Reid would stick with McNabb and his starters.
"I just think," said tailback Brian Westbrook, the beneficiary of an aggressive game plan obviously skewed toward the pass, "that we played the game at another level. It's hard to say why, but we were so focused, it was sort of scary. I mean, when you look up at the scoreboard, and it's 35-0 against a team as good as the Packers are, you're a little bit in shock, you know?"
The way McNabb threw the ball -- he was 32 of 43 for a franchise-record 464 yards, five touchdowns, no interceptions and a passer rating of 147.8 -- was more like shock and awe.
Cognizant of the fact that Minnesota had lost earlier in the day, and that a victory would provide them a one-game lead in the division, the Packers laid an ostrich-sized egg. On the flip side, the Eagles understood that Atlanta's shutout loss at Tampa Bay offered them a chance to put a vise-grip on home-field advantage, and McNabb and his receivers came out and strafed the overmatched Green Bay secondary.
McNabb connected on his first 14 attempts, a team record for consecutive completions. A coach noted more for desiring balance, Reid just let McNabb keep throwing and throwing. And the Eagles kept scoring and scoring.
It was about as complete a victory as imaginable. Packers quarterback Brett Favre, who has been sacked only five times in 11 games, went down five times Sunday (including two sacks each by tackles Corey Simon and Darwin Walker) before being mercifully pulled by coach Mike Sherman in the fourth quarter. And his streak of 36 straight games with at least one touchdown pass was halted. But clearly, it was Philadelphia's offense which set the torrid early pace.
In the second quarter, when the Eagles blew the game wide open with four touchdowns, Philadelphia had 20 offensive snaps -- and ran the ball just once.
|McNabb was unstoppable in the first half, throwing five TD passes.|
||I just think that we played the game at another level. It's hard to say why, but we were so focused, it was sort of scary. I mean, when you look up at the scoreboard, and it's 35-0 against a team as good as the Packers are, you're a little bit in shock, you know?”
||—Eagles TB Brian Westbrook
Seemingly unperturbed that their play-call selection was just as unbalanced as the score, the Eagles threw 19 times in the quarter. McNabb was 15 for 19 for 195 yards, with four touchdown passes and an efficiency rating of 149. Reid credited the performance to the rhythm in which his offense found itself, noting that "things got contagious." Certainly the Packers' young secondary looked sickly in trying to run with the Eagles receivers.
In their game preparation, the Eagles surmised that Green Bay would play a large dose of single coverage, and that guess paid off. Actually, the Packers probably played more zone on the outside, but got burned when they resorted to single coverage. And unfortunately for the Packers, Reid and his staff conjured up a blueprint that created mismatches across the board.
Too often for the Green Bay defense, Westbrook was checked by a safety or linebacker. The result: 11 catches, 156 yards and three touchdowns. His first touchdown, of nine yards, came on a throwback screen. Five minutes later, he ran past Packers strong safety Mark Roman and up the right sideline for a 41-yard touchdown grab. His third score was almost too easy, coming on a 12-yard slant, when he was split far to the left and covered again by a safety.
In addition, wide receiver Terrell Owens had eight grabs for 161 yards and one score, as he and Westbrook became the first Philadelphia tandem since 1962 to register 150 yards or more each in a single game.
"We kind of knew, because of the way they played us last year and what we had seen on tape, that we would get some one-on-one chances," said McNabb, who notched his fifth game this season with four or more touchdown passes, and now has a career-best 28 for the season. "The feeling was that we could do some things with [Westbrook] by putting him out in space. Guys just did a great job in getting off the coverage."
Tight end L.J. Smith said that, in pregame warmups, McNabb was throwing the ball so crisply and with such accuracy, he figured a big performance was coming. Wide receiver Todd Pinkston was adamant that McNabb actually presaged his record performance in the days preceding the game.
"Let's just say that, in practice, the ball didn't hit the ground very much all week," said Pinkston, one of eight different receivers to whom McNabb completed passes. "He was as focused as I've seen him, in a zone, really. And that carried over to the rest of us, too. I mean, our eyes are on the prize, you know?"
We've heard such rhetoric in the past, of course, from veteran Eagles. But the difference this time could be that they don't seem apt to blink. The Packers represented a quality opponent, a team the Eagles might yet encounter again next month, and they were summarily dismissed.
"They brought out all the guns [Sunday]," Packers cornerback Al Harris said. "And when they do that, sure, they're tough to beat."
Len Pasquarelli is a senior NFL writer for ESPN.com. To check out Len's chat archive, click here .