PHILADELPHIA, Jan. 16 -- On a day full of crazy plays and inelegant football, the Philadelphia Eagles did enough to make a convincing case that, even after six weeks devoted to injury and indifference, they remain the best team in the NFL's junior-varsity conference.
They benefited from the stumble-and-bumble routine of the Minnesota Vikings, got two touchdown passes by quarterback Donovan McNabb and reached their fourth straight NFC championship game with a 27-14 triumph Sunday at Lincoln Financial Field in a less-than-memorable divisional playoff game.
The Eagles celebrate Ike Reese's interception of a Daunte Culpepper pass in the third quarter as the Vikings' Adam Goldberg lifts himself up.
(Miles Kennedy -- AP)
The Eagles (14-3) didn't look like the smooth-running, usually overpowering team that opened the season with 13 wins in 14 games, before wide receiver Terrell Owens was lost until at least Super Bowl Sunday because of a severe ankle sprain, and before Coach Andy Reid sat down his other front-line players for most of the final two regular season games to avoid further injuries. But they rebounded from consecutive listless defeats to close the regular season, and they'll attempt to end their agonizing streak of losses in three straight NFC title games when they host the Atlanta Falcons on Sunday.
"We're confident," Eagles tailback Brian Westbrook said. "We're loose. . . . We have an opportunity to get to our goal, which is [to reach] the Super Bowl and win it."
Westbrook and wide receiver Freddie Mitchell were McNabb's favorite targets in the Eagles' Owens-less offense. Mitchell scored a pair of touchdowns, one on a two-yard reception in the first quarter and another on a look-what-I-found recovery of tight end L.J. Smith's second-quarter fumble. Westbrook caught a seven-yard touchdown pass from McNabb early in the second quarter as part of a versatile performance in which he rushed for 70 yards on 12 carries and had five receptions for 47 yards.
"The time that we had off from Andy and the whole month, we weren't too rusty," said McNabb, who completed 21 of 33 passes for 286 yards. "I just wanted to run the offense and do it the right way. . . . This thing is obviously moving in the right direction. We want to take full advantage of the opportunity."
The gamble that Reid took by resting his players late in the season paid off, at least temporarily, as his club had its best outing since a 47-17 victory at home over the Green Bay Packers on Dec. 5.
"I was proud of the guys," Reid said. "Coming back off their rest period, they really seemed to have a lot of energy and got after it pretty good. . . . I wasn't too worried about it because, as I told you guys, I trust the guys. . . . They handled the time very well, like a mature football team does."
But there certainly were flaws in the Eagles' performance. Fullback Josh Parry appeared to lose a second-quarter fumble when the ball squirted from his grasp as he hit the ground, without being touched by a Vikings defender, while diving for the first-down marker at the sideline. But the Eagles retained possession when Reid challenged and an instant-replay review showed that Vikings linebacker Chris Claiborne did not get both feet back in bounds before picking up the ball, meaning that he officially was out of bounds.
McNabb allowed the clock to run out in the first half with the Eagles at the Minnesota 4. He threw a five-yard completion to running back Dorsey Levens in the middle of the field with Philadelphia out of timeouts, and the Eagles didn't get off a field goal attempt. Mitchell gave the Vikings a touchback with a third-quarter fumble when, after being initially awarded a touchdown, a replay review showed that he lost the ball before crossing the goal line as he dove for the end zone, and the ball went out of bounds by hitting the pylon.
None of it mattered, though, because the Vikings (9-9) couldn't cash in on their opportunities. They botched a fake field goal attempt in the second quarter, leaving holder Gus Frerotte -- with would-be receiver Randy Moss off the field because of one too many offensive linemen in the huddle and Coach Mike Tice signaling for a timeout that wasn't awarded -- to throw a fourth-down incompletion from the Eagles 3-yard line.
Quarterback Daunte Culpepper threw interceptions on consecutive third-quarter possessions in Eagles territory and then, on the next drive, took a sack on a third-down play from the Philadelphia 19 and threw a fourth-down incompletion. Culpepper ran for one touchdown in the second quarter and threw for another in the game's final two minutes, but the Vikings spent more of their day looking like the club that went 8-8 during the regular season than the version that won at Green Bay last weekend in a first-round playoff game while the Eagles were home resting with their bye. Moss was limited to three catches for 51 yards.
"When you play a good football team on the road, you can't leave some opportunities on the field," Tice said.
The Eagles were aided by a defensive-holding penalty on the Vikings on their second drive of the day, and capitalized when Mitchell got free from linebacker Keith Newman on a third-and-goal play and caught McNabb's scoring pass. A 52-yard completion from McNabb to wideout Greg Lewis set up McNabb's touchdown throw to Westbrook on the second play of the second quarter.
Culpepper got Minnesota to within 14-7 by bulldozing his way into the end zone on a seven-yard run after a 40-yard connection with wideout Marcus Robinson. But back-to-back pass-interference penalties on the Vikings helped the Eagles to respond immediately. On a first-down play from the Minnesota 14, Smith caught a pass from McNabb and barreled toward the end zone. He lost the ball at the 4 on a hit by cornerback Antoine Winfield, but it sailed directly to Mitchell in the end zone without touching the ground.
"That just goes to show things are going your way," McNabb said. "We all know that in previous years, that ball might have bounced another way."
The Vikings had plenty of chances to climb back into contention. But first came the fake field goal gone bad, and Culpepper mixed a pair of third-and-long conversions in the third quarter with short passes thrown into the arms of Eagles linebackers Ike Reese and Jeremiah Trotter.
"I knew we'd be ready to play," Trotter said. "The last three years left a bad taste in our mouths. We know what's at stake. . . . I just believe this is our year."