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Ankle Injury Likely to End Owens' Season

By Mark Maske
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, December 20, 2004; 5:04 PM

The season of Philadelphia Eagles wide receiver Terrell Owens probably was ended by the injury to his right ankle that he suffered two plays into the third quarter of Sunday's 12-7 win over the Dallas Cowboys at Lincoln Financial Field.

Eagles trainer Rick Burkholder said during a news conference this afternoon that Owens is scheduled to undergo surgery Wednesday to have a screw inserted into the tibia and fibula in his right leg after tests today showed a separation of the bones. Owens's progress will be evaluated after three weeks, and he might be allowed to begin running in five weeks. If all goes well, Burkholder said, there would be an "outside chance'' that Owens could play in the Super Bowl on Feb. 6 "in some role'' -- if, of course, the Eagles advance to the game.

Terrell Owens likely will miss at least a game after spraining his right ankle in Sunday's 12-7 victory over the Dallas Cowboys. (Bradley C Bower - Reuters)

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"We have to take it week by week and hope for the best,'' Burkholder said, adding no ligament damage was found in Owens's ankle.

Owens was sent to a specialist in Baltimore, Burkholder said, after experiencing pain this morning in his lower leg. Doctors also found a fracture of his fibula just below his knee, Burkholder said, but added that injury will heal without surgery. That injury is "not the issue,'' Burkholder said.

Eagles Coach Andy Reid said at the news conference: "He's in good spirits. He's already called all the receivers and told them what happened and to pick up their game and be ready to go.''

Owens finishes the regular season with 77 catches for 1,200 yards and 14 touchdowns.

Suddenly, everything has changed for the Philadelphia Eagles because of the injury. Suddenly, all the paranoia and insecurity arising from the Eagles' defeats in the last three NFC title games has resurfaced. Suddenly, they have been reminded that they lost tailback Brian Westbrook for last season's playoffs when he tore his triceps tendon in the regular-season finale. The Eagles' joyride through the 2004 season has hit a bump and the NFC playoffs might be on again, with the Eagles no longer a lock for the Super Bowl. Maybe, just maybe, the Atlanta Falcons, Green Bay Packers and Minnesota Vikings aren't pretenders, but threats -- reincarnations of last season's Carolina Panthers.

Suddenly, with the injury, the Eagles may be the Eagles again.

That's the difference Owens has made to a team he has transformed into a super-team that had lapped the field in the NFC. He has revved up the offense into something truly dynamic. He has helped Donovan McNabb raise his game. He has commanded the sort of attention from defenses that creates openings for Westbrook, wide receiver Todd Pinkston and tight ends L.J. Smith and Chad Lewis to be better players.

Perhaps most importantly, he has brought a swagger to the Eagles, a confidence and a showiness that has allowed the club to separate itself from its playoff failures the previous three seasons. He has been one of the league's most valuable players -- perhaps even the most valuable player, even in a season in which Peyton Manning is on the verge of breaking Dan Marino's 20-year-old single-season NFL record for touchdown passes.

Reid had said Sunday that initial X-rays of Owens's ankle showed no break. Preliminary indications, Reid said, were that Owens had not suffered a "high'' ankle sprain, a severe sprain that sometimes can linger and affect a player as long as, or even longer than, a fractured ankle would.

Reid had said that he didn't expect Owens to play in the Eagles' next game, at St. Louis on Monday night. He said he'd know more after today's MRI about Owens's availability for the regular-season finale against the Cincinnati Bengals on Jan. 2 at Lincoln Financial Field. McNabb had said there was no doubt in his mind that Owens would be available for the playoffs. The Eagles, who improved to 13-1 Sunday, will have a first-round playoff bye and will host an NFC semifinal on Jan. 15 or 16, giving Owens four weeks to heal for the next meaningful game.

As it turned out, he'll need seven weeks to even think about playing again, and the Eagles look quite a bit more vulnerable than the team that steamrolled the NFC for most of the season. Their aura of NFC invincibility already was punctured in their past two games, in which the Washington Redskins and the Cowboys pushed them to the limit before succumbing.

The Eagles did their best Sunday evening to convince everyone -- perhaps even themselves -- that all will be well. "We've still got weapons,'' Smith said. "I don't know how everybody else feels, but I still feel confident in our team. You just line everybody up and say, 'Somebody has to step up.' Really, everybody has to step up. We hope it's not serious, but you've got to play with the guys you've got. When you're out on the field, you're not worrying about who's hurt.''

Wide receiver Freddie Mitchell said: "We've overcome things before. We've even overcome Donovan being out for a few games. We have a month until the playoffs. We'll be all right.''

Said McNabb: "We've been to three NFC championship games without T.O.''

But these Eagles didn't want to be those Eagles. Without Owens, the Eagles must try to grind out wins with their defense, the multiple talents of Westbrook and the improvisational skills of McNabb. Without Owens, they have a set of wide receivers -- Pinkston, Mitchell and Greg Lewis -- that doesn't particularly scare defenses. Their most effective wideout Sunday, in fact, was Westbrook, who was difficult to stop as a receiver when he was stationed out wide in some formations. They don't have an offense that controls a game with its running attack, although Westbrook and Dorsey Levens did combine for 91 rushing yards on 24 carries Sunday. Without Owens, the Eagles might use more formations in which Levens is the running back and Westbrook splits out wide as a receiver.

With Owens contributing only two catches for 24 yards Sunday -- 20 of them on the play on which he was hurt, with his right leg folding beneath him as he was dragged down by Dallas safety Roy Williams -- the Eagles struggled mightily against a Cowboys defense they'd made to look silly in a 49-21 triumph at Texas Stadium in a Monday night game on Nov. 15. The Eagles won Sunday only because McNabb played like the old McNabb, not the one who has been mostly tied to the pocket and become a pinpoint passer this season. He took off and ran, and his scrambles of 12 and 19 yards on consecutive plays set up Levens's go-ahead, two-yard touchdown plunge with 1 minute 57 seconds left.

"I feel great,'' McNabb said, injecting a bit of humor into a mostly humorless postgame period for the Eagles. "I have invested in the Pilates tape with Daisy Fuentes. I still have my Tae Bo tapes with Billy Blanks. I continue to try to stay physically fit just in case I get called on to run.''

The Eagles suddenly are facing the prospect of having to fight their way through a set of NFC playoffs that until recently looked like a walk-over. But they say they aren't discouraged. Their gritty wins over the Redskins and Cowboys, they say, show that they're more than just a glamour team, that there's plenty of substance to go with the style that Owens has brought to the club.

"Those types of games, we might have lost in the past,'' safety Brian Dawkins said. "We're not losing them now.''

Said McNabb: "It says a lot for us to be 13-1 right now. . . . When things didn't look too good, we were able to continue to fight. When everyone talks about the Philadelphia Eagles, they talk about the firepower we have on the offensive side and the capabilities of putting up big points. No one talks that we continue to dig and dig until we finally get that hole dug. . . . What you're seeing is a confident bunch.''

All season, the Eagles have had the luxury of talking about this Owens controversy or that Owens controversy -- Owens and Jeff Garcia, Owens and Ray Lewis, Owens and the "Monday Night Football'' intro. Now, unfortunately for them, they will be left talking about their recent past and whether their season of dominance is about to give way to another postseason of disappointment.

No one ever promised it was going to be easy.

McNabb had the understatement of the Eagles' season when he said: "Things will be different, obviously, next week.'' . . .

Dallas wide receiver Keyshawn Johnson didn't think much of the Cowboys' playoff chances after Sunday's defeat dropped their record to 5-9.

"I would assume after this game that we should be cancelled out,'' Johnson said. "I do not think we could go into the playoffs at 7-9.''

But Johnson was thinking about a normal season in a respectable conference, not about this crazy season in the pitiable NFC. There is a reasonable chance that a team with a 7-9 record will reach the playoffs, and the Cowboys still are in the chase.

Three NFC teams -- the Eagles, Falcons and Packers -- have clinched playoff berths. The Seattle Seahawks, at 7-7, lead the dreadful NFC West by a game over the Rams. The Vikings lead the wild-card race, at 8-6. Three teams (the Panthers, Rams and New Orleans Saints) are tied for the other wild-card spot at 6-8, and seven clubs (the Cowboys, Redskins, New York Giants, Detroit Lions, Chicago Bears, Tampa Bay Buccaneers and Arizona Cardinals) are a game back at 5-9.

Yes, in the NFC a team that started 1-7 (the Panthers) is in the wild-card catbird seat and a club on a seven-game losing streak (the Giants) remains in the thick of the race.

The Panthers seem to have the best chance of the NFC's 6-8 teams to win out and finish 8-8. Their remaining games are at Tampa Bay and home against New Orleans. The Saints host the Falcons before finishing the regular season at Carolina. The Rams play both of their remaining games at home, but they're against the Eagles and New York Jets.

The key could be Sunday's Carolina at Tampa Bay game. If the Panthers win, the NFC could save some dignity with an 8-8 team getting the second wild-card berth. But if Carolina loses, the conference could be well on its way to having a 7-9 club in the playoffs.

A team with a losing record never has reached the playoffs in a non-strike season. It happened only in the strike-shortened season of 1982, when two 4-5 clubs reached the postseason.

The Seahawks could be an 8-8 division champion, with remaining games at home against the Cardinals and Falcons. There have been five previous 8-8 teams in the playoffs, most recently the Cowboys and Lions in 1999.

Streamlined Playbook Helps Manning Improve

The turnaround for Eli Manning, if this indeed proves to be a turnaround, began Tuesday. That was two days after a dismal performance against the Baltimore Ravens in which he had a passer rating of zero, and the rookie quarterback huddled with Giants Coach Tom Coughlin to, essentially, ask to be given a fighting chance to succeed.

Coughlin, at Manning's request, pared down the play book, resolving to use those plays with which Manning was most comfortable.

"I just talked to him about why I was struggling [and] what could we do to change things.'' Manning said Saturday in East Rutherford, N.J. "I just felt we needed to run plays I'm comfortable with, where I know what to do [and] where to go with the ball.''

The results were immediate Saturday. Manning was outplayed by fellow rookie quarterback Ben Roethlisberger and the Giants lost to the Pittsburgh Steelers at Giants Stadium. But neither Manning nor his team was embarrassed, as it appeared heading into the game they would be. Manning didn't look lost or overwhelmed in the pocket, as he'd looked in his first four NFL starts, and the Giants had a late lead before succumbing, 33-30.

"It feels different just because we hung in the game,'' Manning said. "We had a chance to win. We scored some points. . . . I saw the field better. I knew where to look. When you're comfortable and you know where to go with the ball, your mechanics are better. Everything was in rhythm.''

Manning's teammates noticed a difference in him. "This is the most vocal I've seen him all season in the huddle,'' tailback Tiki Barber said. "It showed that he was confident in what he was doing.''

So did the Steelers defenders, who had watched game tapes during the week graphically depicting Manning's rookie-year struggles, then saw a different quarterback on the field Saturday. "He did a great job of controlling the offense and managing his team,'' linebacker James Farrior said. "He made some plays. He deserves credit. Everybody who said how bad he was -- he showed them.''

Said another Pittsburgh linebacker, Joey Porter: "I would have liked to have rattled him a little more. We got close a few times, but we didn't get him. He kept his team in it right to the end. He held his own. And we threw some stuff at this young guy, no doubt about it.''

The Steelers failed to sack Manning, and he completed 16 of 23 passes for 182 yards and two touchdowns against the NFL's top-ranked defense. He didn't throw an interception until the Giants' final offensive play, when Steelers cornerback Willie Williams latched onto a deep pass after Manning's intended receiver, Amani Toomer, got his feet tangled with Williams's and tumbled to the ground. The Steelers ran out the clock and survived, extending their winning streak to 12 games and the Giants' losing streak to seven games. Roethlisberger is unbeaten in his 12 NFL starts, and Manning is winless in his five NFL starts.

But if Manning goes on to be the great NFL quarterback that the Giants continue to think he will be, Saturday will be remembered as the day when things started to click for him. He'd thrown one touchdown pass and six interceptions in his first four starts. He hadn't completed even half his throws in any of those outings, and he began Saturday with a passer rating of 33.8. Against the Ravens, he connected on four of 18 passes for 27 yards and Coughlin mercifully yanked him in favor of veteran Kurt Warner.

Manning was being buried beneath an avalanche of criticism in the media capital of the world. Many observers wondered if the Giants, given Roethlisberger's exploits, had gotten the wrong quarterback on draft day.

And it all was justified, Manning said Saturday.

"I just wanted to go out there and play better than I had been, get this offense moving and score some points,'' he said. " . . . When you play four games and don't really play well in any of them, there's nothing really good to be said.''

But he was a different quarterback Saturday and the Steelers couldn't stop him in the second half, in which Manning threw for 155 yards on 12-for-15 passing. He made the Steelers pay for one third-quarter blitz with an on-target deep throw to wideout David Tyree for a 49-yard gain that set up a touchdown.

"We came after him with the blitz in the third quarter, and he threw that great ball. . . . The play hit the coverage,'' Steelers Coach Bill Cowher said. "Give him credit. He threw it right on the money.''

Cowher offered Manning some encouraging words after the game, and Manning said that his dealings with Roethlisberger on the field were friendly. "We won't let any of this cause controversy between us,'' Manning said.

But while Manning closed the gap on Roethlisberger, he didn't come close to overtaking him. And the Giants, in the end, couldn't manage more than giving the Steelers a scare.

"We did play better,'' Barber said. "We had good balance. The last few weeks, we weren't even competitive offensively. It's encouraging to see Eli play well. But it's frustrating to hang with one of the best teams in the league and not be able to win.'' . . .

Manning's preparation was aided by Giants defensive coordinator Tim Lewis, who spent the previous four seasons as the Steelers' defensive coordinator.

"It definitely helped their offense,'' Farrior said in a theme echoed throughout Pittsburgh's postgame locker room. "He knows our whole defense.''

The Steelers had changed their hand signals and did their best to throw in some defensive wrinkles for the game. But it's difficult to overhaul an entire system in a week -- and counterproductive to make drastic changes to one that's been so successful -- so the Steelers just had to do their best to overcome the Giants' tactical advantage.

"We had some questions about them'' during the week, Manning said. "It was more our [offensive] coaches than me. We had a good plan. We knew what their tendencies were, what their blitzes were.''. . . .

Roethlisberger threw two interceptions for the second game in a row, but also demonstrated an ability to bounce back quickly, completing 18 of 28 throws for 316 yards and a touchdown.

"When you throw an interception, there's not much you can do to take it back,'' Roethlisberger said. "I always smile when I throw an interception. I'm not happy about it. But you have to learn from it. You can't be gun-shy as a quarterback.''

It was Roethlisberger's first 300-yard passing game in the NFL. He previously had not thrown for more than 231 yards or attempted more than 25 passes in a game, as the Steelers hadn't deviated from their winning formula of tough defense and grind-it-out running on offense. Jerome Bettis rushed for 140 yards against the Giants, but the defense surrendered 30 points for the first time since a Week 2 loss to the Ravens. Roethlisberger was ready when needed.

"He's grown up quite a bit,'' Cowher said. "He's the leader of our football team, and he's got some good people around him.''

Roethlisberger has won the last 25 games he's started, his final 13 at the University of Miami (Ohio) and his first 12 with the Steelers. Asked Saturday if he'd forgotten what it feels like to lose, he said: "I don't ever want to remember what it feels like to lose.'' . . .

Steelers wideout Antwaan Randle El had the first 100-yard receiving game of his NFL career Saturday, with 149 yards on five catches. He was making his fourth straight start in place of Plaxico Burress, sidelined by a hamstring injury, and demonstrated how far he has come as a receiver since being switched to the position as a rookie after playing quarterback in college at Indiana.

"My rookie year, I struggled being in the right spot, being where I was supposed to be,'' the third-year pro said. "It's a learning process. I think I've gotten a lot better.''

Randle El also threw a first-quarter touchdown pass on a trick play. On a third-and-seven play from the Giants 10-yard line, Randle El lined up in the backfield and took a pitch from Roethlisberger. The Steelers left Giants defensive end Osi Umenyiora unblocked, and he closed in on Randle El quickly. But Randle El deftly flipped the ball forward to running back Verron Haynes, who ran through the hole created by Umenyiora's quick rush upfield for the touchdown.

That was the Steelers' second straight touchdown pass over a two-game span that hadn't been thrown by Roethlisberger. Tailback Jerome Bettis threw a go-ahead touchdown pass eight days ago against the Jets on another trick play.

But, again, the Steelers mixed some straightforward offensive football with the razzle-dazzle Saturday. Bettis ran for 140 yards on 36 carries, his fifth 100-yard rushing performance in the five starts he's made this season when Duce Staley has been sidelined by hamstring problems. Staley was back on the inactive list Saturday after aggravating the injury against the Jets, his second game back since sitting out four games.

Bettis's 100-yard game was his 48th with the Steelers, breaking the club record he'd shared with Franco Harris. . . .

Cowher said he hopes the Steelers will have Burress back in the lineup this week. But wideout Hines Ward suffered a hip pointer Saturday during his nine-catch, 134-yard outing. . . .

Some in the league regard Farrior and Ravens safety Ed Reed among the front-runners for the defensive player of the year award. Farrior said: "It would be a great honor. But I can't let it affect the way we're playing as a team. Our whole defense is out there playing well.'' . . .

The Steelers were fortunate that Williams wasn't called for pass interference on the Giants' final offensive play. "I thought it was a good no-call,'' Cowher said.

Said Coughlin: "I know what the rule says. At the last minute, the defender's eyes evidently went up to the ball. And when two people are looking up for the ball and their feet get tangled, there's no foul. Every play out there is a judgment call. I thought it was a penalty, but I understand what the rule says, too.'' . . .

The Steelers didn't punt Saturday, marking the first time in Coughlin's NFL coaching career that an opponent hadn't had to punt in a game. The seven-game losing streak is tied for the longest by a Coughlin-coached NFL club. The expansion Jacksonville Jaguars had a seven-game losing streak under Coughlin in their first year, 1995. . . . The first interception that Roethlisberger threw ended the Giants' drought of six games and 170 opponents' passes without an interception. . . . Tight end Jeremy Shockey had a touchdown catch Saturday and has six of the Giants' eight touchdown receptions this season. All three of Manning's NFL touchdown passes have been to tight ends, two to Shockey and one Saturday to Marcellus Rivers.

Shell to Interview With Dolphins

The Miami Dolphins plan to interview former Oakland Raiders coach Art Shell for their head-coaching job within the next few days. They also could interview University of Miami defensive coordinator Randy Shannon. Those interviews would satisfy the league's requirement that each team interview at least one minority candidate during a head-coaching search.

The Dolphins' front-runner, however, remains LSU Coach Nick Saban, who interviewed with club officials last week. The Dolphins apparently are readying a $4 million-per-season contract offer for Saban and would give him total control over the team's football operations. It appears increasingly likely that Saban will accept the job after rejecting previous NFL coaching overtures. . . .

Indianapolis agreed to a five-year contract extension with wide receiver Brandon Stokley, keeping him off the free-agent market in the spring. . . .

Jacksonville put itself in great position in the AFC wild-card chase with its win Sunday at Green Bay. The Jaguars are tied with Buffalo, Baltimore and Denver for the second wild-card spot, with records of 8-6. But the Jaguars have the easiest remaining schedule, with games at home against Houston and at Oakland. The Bills play at San Francisco but then end the regular season at home against the Steelers. The Ravens play at Pittsburgh before closing at home against the Dolphins. The Broncos play at Tennessee but close at home against the Colts. . . .

The Bills got a scare during Sunday's win at Cincinnati when tailback Willis McGahee twisted his knee during a play. But, contrary to initial reports, the injury was not to the same knee that McGahee hurt in college -- his left one. This injury is to his right knee, and tests today showed that McGahee only suffered a bruise and a hyperextension that could keep him sidelined for one week but shouldn't have long-term implications. McGahee has been the key to Buffalo's resurgence this season after sitting out all of last season rehabilitating the devastating knee injury that he suffered in his final collegiate game at Miami. McGahee returned to Sunday's game but sat out the fourth quarter of the Bills' 16-point victory. . . .

San Francisco quarterback Tim Rattay will miss the rest of the 49ers' dreary season because of the torn fascia muscle in his foot that has kept him out of the club's past two games{lcub}hellip{rcub}.

The Seahawks hope to know more today about the extent of the elbow injury that forced quarterback Matt Hasselbeck out of Sunday's loss to the Jets.

McNair Shut Down for '04

The Titans shut down quarterback Steve McNair for the remainder of the season Friday. McNair plans to undergo surgery in which a bone graft will be used in an attempt to strengthen his injured sternum. The reigning NFL co-most valuable player repeatedly aggravated the injury and played only eight games this season. The Titans also decided to end the season of tailback Chris Brown because of a "turf toe'' injury. . . .

The NFL fined Broncos quarterback Jake Plummer $5,000 on Friday for the obscene gesture that he directed toward the crowd at Invesco Field at Mile High during a triumph over the Dolphins eight days ago. . . .

New England might get Ty Law back soon but won't get back fellow cornerback Tyrone Poole, placing him on the injured reserve list because of his knee injury. . . . The Bengals placed center Rich Braham on the IR list Saturday because of his knee injury.

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