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Mike Wise

Could the Fourth Time Finally Be the Charm?

By Mike Wise
Monday, January 17, 2005; Page D01


It's all on Donovan McNabb, he knows. He is most responsible for taking this battered, bitter sports town along for the journey again, into the NFC championship game for the fourth straight season. In this warped market, that doesn't mean McNabb is applauded for winning consistently.

No, in Philly, he could be the quarterback most responsible for four straight losses.

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"I don't have any more room for any more added pressure on my shoulders," McNabb said after he and the Eagles had handled the Minnesota Vikings in an NFC second-round playoff game. "Ever since I started this thing, it seems more pressure has been put on my shoulders."

For every kid who believes the life of a professional athlete is about unimaginable wealth and happiness, take a look at McNabb's unsmiling mug Sunday. He was graceful at times against the Vikings, gritty at others. He threw for 286 yards and two touchdowns. Afterward, he was better-dressed in an immaculate cocoa wool ensemble than anyone at Lincoln Financial Field and . . . the man was so serious, almost tense. He could barely celebrate yet another playoff win.

He appeared to be thinking about Michael Vick's team next Sunday in the NFC title game -- where, again, it is all on McNabb. He knows that to end the habitual, crushing losses he and the Eagles put the city through he must outplay a quarterback even more dangerous than he is.

"To be honest, the Atlanta Falcons have more pressure on their shoulders than we do," McNabb said. "We won home-field advantage, we won the bye and this is the fourth time for us being in the NFC championship. So they come in here, we play the way we want and expect to, and if we win, then what do you guys say now? I guess you will be talking about the Atlanta Falcons."

Hold up. McNabb's team has lost the last three NFC title games, including two in front of the Eagles' shellshocked fans, and the pressure is on a younger, more agile quarterback playing with house money? Nuh-uh. You can't twist it up that easily.

If McNabb is honest with himself, Vick and Atlanta look a lot like Carolina all over again.

Three years ago, it was St. Louis stealing their Super Bowl berth. Two years ago, Tampa Bay. And last year, it was those upstart Panthers. McNabb knows the step the Eagles took today too well. It's the step before the one he and his team trip on, three years running now. Even as a stingy Philadelphia defense came at Daunte Culpepper from every angle and rattled Randy Moss, there was already a palpable sense of dread in the air. All the Eagles and their legions did was return to the place where they've met failure three years in a row. To lose four in a row would be unthinkable enough; to lose three on their home field would border on masochism. McNabb cannot even fathom a genuine celebration until the Eagles beat Atlanta and end the misery.

"If you don't feel the hurt as an athlete, you're not competing hard enough," he said in the Eagles' locker room an hour after the game ended. "You felt you were supposed to be there. You wished and you wanted to be there. And when you didn't go, it was tough. I've been burning inside for another opportunity."

McNabb was solid, considering he hadn't taken an important snap in more than a month. With home-field advantage wrapped up early, Andy Reid's decision to rest his starters the final two games of the regular season became second-guess material all week -- the thinking that somehow McNabb and the Eagles would lose all sensory perception because of the time off.

It didn't work out that way and now there are but four quarterbacks left -- and none but Tom Brady has been to a Super Bowl. And whatever one thinks of McNabb's durability and poise over his career, he will be ultimately judged on whether he can get to Jacksonville in early February.

McNabb exudes a carefree, laidback air. His running style plays into his demeanor; he glides more than he sprints. He looks disappointed when he fails on the field, but he never appears genuinely hurt by a loss. In one TV commercial, he's the oversized child whose real-life mother wants him to eat his Chunky Soup. The most ardent Eagles fan sees that telegenic smile and probably asks, "Does he want it enough?"

Just after the Eagles lost the 2003 NFC championship game to Tampa Bay at home, McNabb was hanging at a chic, underground club in San Diego's Gaslamp Quarter. Only a few days removed from being thrown to the ground by Warren Sapp and Simeon Rice, there he was, doing the town during Super Bowl week. Not that the guy shouldn't have an offseason life, but was it wrong to wonder how McNabb could so easily blend into the party scene a few days after missing a chance to make sure his team played in the Super Bowl? Did he care enough to get his team there?

"People can say what they want, but I wasn't going to go into a shell after we lost," McNabb said when asked today about the criticism he received. "I wasn't going to do nothing out of the ordinary. I was going to still live my life.

"It burned," he added. "Every time. To the point where you just keep burning inside for another opportunity."

The truth: The Eagles are going to have a problem stopping Atlanta's run. The Falcons' defensive backs are suspect, but their pass rush is much better than the Vikings'. And with Terrell Owens still sidelined, there are no great Eagles wideouts left to blanket.

These poor schlubs, huddled in their green earmuffs and their T.O. jerseys, falling over each other in the cold. These poor Philadelphians, planning to show up next week for their team's fourth straight NFC championship game -- the third on their home field. They believe they can break the hex of this embittered sports town, that McNabb can save them from another winter of mourning.

And he thinks the pressure is on Michael Vick?

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