PHILADELPHIA, Jan. 23 -- The Philadelphia Eagles discovered that there is life after the NFC championship game, after all. Their Super Bowl-or-bust season indeed will end on football's biggest stage, as they got two touchdown passes from quarterback Donovan McNabb to tight end Chad Lewis and rode the rugged play of their defense to a 27-10 triumph over the Atlanta Falcons in Sunday's NFC title game at frigid Lincoln Financial Field.
Their agonizing run of losses in three straight NFC championship games, the last two at home, ended with an unspectacular but highly efficient performance by the Eagles. They advanced to the Super Bowl on Feb. 6 in Jacksonville, Fla., the franchise's first Super Bowl trip since the 1980 season -- perhaps with wide receiver Terrell Owens back in the lineup.
Atlanta's Michael Vick, who completed just 11 of 24 passes and was sacked four times, is left grounded after an interception in the 3rd quarter.
(Bill Kostroun -- AP)
"It's been a long wait," Lewis said. "I know the history of this place, all the down times, all the 'wait till next year.' Now we don't have to say, 'Wait till next year.' "
The Eagles (15-3) grabbed a 14-3 lead with a pair of first-half touchdowns, a four-yard run by reserve tailback Dorsey Levens and a three-yard pass from McNabb to Lewis. They watched the Falcons (12-6) get within 14-10 before halftime on tailback Warrick Dunn's 10-yard touchdown run.
But the Eagles never were threatened in the second half, as their defense put the clamps on Falcons quarterback Michael Vick and the rest of the Atlanta offense. Eagles place kicker David Akers provided a pair of third-quarter field goals, and the crowd of 67,717 began chants of "Su-per Bowl! Su-per Bowl!" after McNabb found Lewis for a two-yard touchdown with just more than three minutes remaining.
"It was a great feeling," Eagles Coach Andy Reid said. "Really with about two minutes left, the place erupted even louder than it had been. The players really started feeling it after that last touchdown. . . . I think it makes it even more worthwhile that we had to do it four times to get over the hump."
The Eagles were the NFC's best team all season, but their joyride to Jacksonville was interrupted when they lost Owens last month to a severe ankle sprain that required surgery. Reid sat down his front-line players in the final two games of the regular season, sending the Eagles into the playoffs on the heels of consecutive defeats. But they were vindicated, and so was their coach.
"You could tell he was relieved," veteran linebacker Ike Reese said. "I was happy for the big guy. He's taken a lot of heat for a guy who's won as much as he's won."
McNabb completed 17 of 26 passes for 180 yards and led a turnover-free Philadelphia offense. Tailback Brian Westbrook ran for 96 yards on 16 carries and added 39 yards on five catches. The Eagles even outrushed the Falcons, 156 yards to 99. The Philadelphia defense limited Vick to 26 rushing yards and 136 passing yards on 11-for-24 throwing accuracy. The Eagles didn't blitz often. But they hit Vick hard and they hit him often, sacking him four times. They pounded Vick's receivers, and safety Brian Dawkins set up one of Akers's field goals with an interception.
"They didn't do anything different," Vick said. "They played just like we thought they were going to. . . . They played a great game, from an offensive standpoint and a defensive standpoint. . . . It's tough to lose a football game like this, to come so close and you don't take advantage of the opportunity."
A massive snow-removal operation overnight left few signs inside the stadium of Saturday's storm that paralyzed the city. But the teams did have to deal with a game-time temperature of 17 degrees and wind gusts of 35 mph. "At one point, when the wind was blowing sideways this morning, I thought we were going to have trouble throwing the ball," Reid said.
But McNabb managed the weather well and the Falcons never got going. The tone was set early. Atlanta had little success on its opening possession, going three plays and out, and the Eagles crafted a solid opening drive. But McNabb sailed a throw high over the head of Lewis, who was open on a third-and-seven play from the Atlanta 32-yard line. The Eagles lined up for a 50-yard field goal attempt by Akers on fourth down but faked it, with holder Koy Detmer flipping the ball forward to Lewis. The Falcons were ready, though, and Lewis was tackled shy of the first down.
Atlanta moved to the Philadelphia 37. But Vick threw incomplete on third and seven while being hit by defensive end Derrick Burgess. Chris Mohr's punt into the wind went only seven yards, and the Eagles moved 70 yards for the game's first touchdown.
They benefited from an illegal-use-of-hands call against Atlanta rookie cornerback DeAngelo Hall to keep their drive going after a third-down incompletion. Westbrook broke free for a 36-yard run, and tight end L.J. Smith provided a 21-yard catch and run for a first down at the Falcons 4. Levens got stacked up around the 2 on his first-down carry but kept his legs churning, and Eagles guard Jermane Mayberry helped to push the pile into the end zone.
The Falcons responded with a 17-play drive that took nearly nine minutes. A defensive-holding penalty on safety Michael Lewis negated an interception by cornerback Sheldon Brown, and the Falcons marched to a first down at the Philadelphia 2. But Atlanta had to settle for Jay Feely's 23-yard field goal.
The Eagles promptly extended their lead to 14-3, with wide receiver Greg Lewis providing the key play. He outmaneuvered cornerback Christian Morton to get to McNabb's underthrown deep pass, hauling in the throw for a 45-yard gain to the Atlanta 4. On second down from the 3, McNabb had Chad Lewis open in the end zone along the right sideline. His throw was a bit wide, but Lewis made a superb grab and managed to keep his feet in bounds. An instant-replay challenge by the Falcons was rejected.
Atlanta didn't wilt, driving 70 yards for a touchdown. Tight end Alge Crumpler took a jarring hit by Dawkins but held on for a 31-yard reception to the Eagles 10, and Dunn scored on the next play.
The Eagles used Westbrook's running and receiving to move down the field on their opening drive of the second half, but couldn't get in the end zone and were fortunate that Falcons safety Bryan Scott dropped a would-be interception before Akers connected from 31 yards.
The Eagles punted on their next possession, and Vick and Crumpler were on different wavelengths. Vick thought the tight end was breaking off a pass pattern, but Crumpler kept going. Vick's throw ended up in Dawkins's chest, and the safety's 19-yard return gave the Eagles possession at the Falcons 11. But all they could manage was Akers's 34-yard field goal.