PHILADELPHIA -- Andy Reid was right.
When he sat down his front-line players for most of the final two games of the regular season to avoid another serious injury on the heels of losing wide receiver Terrell Owens to a severe ankle sprain, the Philadelphia Eagles coach made himself the prospective scapegoat if his club fell short in the playoffs again. Eagles' fans weren't going to want to hear about Owens's injury if the team again failed to reach the Super Bowl. They likely would have blamed Reid. And they wouldn't necessarily have been wrong, since the coach gave his offense no time to adjust to playing without Owens before the postseason arrived.
But Reid said all along that he knew his team. He said he knew his veterans would handle the time off well and be ready to go when the playoffs began. And the strategy paid off handsomely Sunday when the Eagles ended their agonizing string of losses in three straight NFC title games and reached their first Super Bowl in 24 years by beating the Atlanta Falcons, 27-10, at frigid Lincoln Financial Field.
____ The Road to Jacksonville ____ • Bill Belichick learned football from his father, longtime Navy assistant.
• The Eagles still think Terrell Owens has a chance to play.
• A trip to the Super Bowl fits perfectly into Eagles Coach Andy Reid's master plan.
• Tony Kornheiser: The pagentry, the tradition, the smell? A Jacksonville Super Bowl.
• Flexibilty builds success for the Patriots and coach Bill Belichick.
_____ What's Next? _____ Super Bowl XXXIX
• When: 6:30 p.m., Sunday, Feb. 6
• Where: Alltell Stad., Jacksonville
• TV: Fox
• Latest Line: Patriots by 7
_____ Conference Results _____ NFC Championship
• Eagles 27, Falcons 10 | Box
• Patriots 41, Steelers 27 | Box
_____ Audio _____ • Jerome Bettis cites key turnovers that doomed the Steelers.
• Brady says the Patriots have taken nothing for granted.
• Brian Dawkins talks about the goals of the defensive unit.
• Vick credits the Eagles' defense.
_____ On Our Site _____ • Photos
• Talk about the playoffs.
• Graphic: The Patriots can beat teams on both sides of the ball.
_____ Divisional Results _____ Saturday
• Steelers 20, Jets 17 (OT) | Box
• Falcons 47, Rams 17 | Box
• Eagles 27, Vikings 14 | Box
• Patriots 20, Colts 3 | Box
_____ First-Round Results _____ NFC
• Vikings 31, Packers 17 | Box
• Rams 27, Seahawks 20 | Box
• Colts 49, Broncos 24 | Box
• Jets 20, Chargers 17 (OT) | Box
"There is no greater Andy Reid booster than [club president] Joe Banner or myself," Eagles owner Jeffrey Lurie said afterward. "There was no question in my mind that he prepared the team in the best way possible down the stretch."
Sure, the Eagles might have won anyway if Reid had just left quarterback Donovan McNabb, tailback Brian Westbrook and others on the field in the latter stages of the regular season. But they did win playing his way, and players said their coach should feel vindicated.
"Hopefully that stigma of him not being able to coach in big games, not being able to win big games and not being the one who's responsible for what we've done, is erased," linebacker Ike Reese said. "It wasn't fair."
The Eagles outscored the Minnesota Vikings and the Falcons, 54-24, in their two NFC playoff triumphs. McNabb completed 38 of 59 passes for 466 yards in the two games, with four touchdowns and no interceptions. Westbrook rushed for 166 yards and added 86 receiving yards on 10 catches. The Philadelphia offense ran smoothly, and the defense took care of the rest. The Eagles kept Michael Vick and the Falcons in check Sunday, perfectly executing the game plan by defensive coordinator Jim Johnson that called for them to be disciplined but still aggressive against the sport's most elusive quarterback. The Falcons never seriously threatened in the second half after closing to within 14-10 late in the second quarter, and the Eagles knew by late in the game that their dominance was complete.
"You could see it in the other team's eyes," wide receiver Freddie Mitchell said. "It was a wrap."
The Eagles who have been around the longest seemed to feel as good for Reid as they did for themselves late Sunday. Reese and defensive tackle Corey Simon gave Reid the traditional on-the-field Gatorade shower even on a blustery day following a snowstorm, with temperatures in the teens and 35-mph wind gusts.
"He made some noise because we got him good," Reese said. "I'm not going to emulate what noises he made because I've still got to work here, at least one more game. You could tell he was relieved. 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."
The Eagles players have genuine affection for the coach who led them through one of the most exasperating strings of postseason near-misses in league history, and now finally has broken through to conclude a season on football's biggest stage.
"He respects his players," Reese said. "He respects his leaders. He allows us and expects us to take ownership of the team. As players, we respect that."
Now Owens is prepared to return to the lineup for the Super Bowl in 13 days in Jacksonville, Fla., against the New England Patriots.
"I think it paid off," Eagles guard Jermane Mayberry said of Reid's late-season approach. "Usually in this league, the healthier team wins. The fresh team is always better."
Owens Likely To Play
The Eagles expect Owens to play in some capacity against the Patriots.
Owens declined to comment in the postgame locker room Sunday. Reid backed off the pronouncement that he'd made on the field while accepting the NFC championship trophy -- when he said he had a feeling that Owens would play -- and he and Eagles players took a wait-and-see approach. Reid, McNabb and other Eagles players said they hoped that Owens would play and expected him to give it his best shot, but they had no way of knowing for certain. Lurie said that if anyone could pull it off, it would be Owens. Owens walked without a limp Sunday.
One person familiar with the situation, speaking on the condition of anonymity because Reid might want to keep Owens's status a mystery during the Super Bowl buildup for competitive reasons, said late Sunday evening: "There's no doubt that everyone is expecting him to be back. The question isn't if he'll play. It's how much and how well he'll play."
Owens suffered a syndesmotic, or "high," ankle sprain, his doctors and Eagles officials have said, during a Dec.19 game against the Dallas Cowboys and underwent surgery a few days later. His doctor and Eagles officials have said there would be a chance he could be ready to play by Super Bowl Sunday. Owens has said in recent weeks he expected to play in the game, and he spent Sunday dancing around the field before the game and on the sideline during it, whipping the crowd into a frenzy and serving as the team's leading cheerleader.
Lewis To Miss Super Bowl
Eagles tight end Chad Lewis will miss the Super Bowl because of the foot injury that he suffered on the second of his two touchdown catches Sunday.
The Eagles announced today that Lewis suffered a Lisfranc sprain, an injury to the bones and ligaments that join the forefoot and midfoot. The injury is named for Jacques Lisfranc, a French field surgeon in Napoleon's army who first described the injury after seeing it occur to soldiers who fell from their horses without their feet releasing from the stirrups. It is a serious injury that is more common now in automobile accidents.
Reid said Sunday that Lewis had suffered a sprained foot but was expected to be available for the Super Bowl. Instead, Lewis is scheduled to undergo surgery Wednesday.
The Eagles likely will add a tight end this week to go with L.J. Smith and long snapper Mike Bartrum. Lewis, a three-time Pro Bowl selection, shared playing time this season with Smith, a second-year pro, and had 29 catches for 267 yards and three touchdowns during the regular season. Lewis, a seven-year NFL veteran out of BYU, is eligible for unrestricted free agency in the spring.
"He was crushed," Reid said during his news conference today. "You sure don't like to see that happen to a veteran player that waited his whole career to get to this thing." . . .
The Eagles felt they were tight before last season's loss at home to the Carolina Panthers in the NFC championship game, and they didn't want a repeat Sunday. So defensive end Hugh Douglas staged a dance party in the trainer's room about 45 minutes before game time, and one of the participants was Lurie.
"The players wanted me to dance a little bit in the training room before the game, so I did it," the owner said. "I can't say I did it well, but I did it. It was just the players and everyone trying to stay loose. It worked, so I guess I'm obligated to do it again in Jacksonville if that's what the guys want. If that's what works, I'm happy to do it." . . . Eagles right tackle Jon Runyan was beaten by Atlanta defensive end Patrick Kerney for one of the two sacks that the Falcons had Sunday. But Runyan mostly did a good job against Kerney even while playing with a sprained medial collateral ligament in his right knee suffered during the Vikings game.
"Nobody wants to talk about us [on the offensive line] until we screw something up," Runyan said. "We know we've been playing well all year. We've had guys banged up and we keep coming back, turning it up and giving [McNabb] time. If you give Donovan a couple extra seconds back there, he's going to make something happen."
Runyan, by his account, had no doubts entering Sunday's game that the Eagles were Super Bowl-bound.
"I knew when I woke up [Sunday] morning that I was going," Runyan said. "It was just a formality going through the game."
Told of Runyan's remark, Lurie said: "I wasn't that confident." . . . Reid has passed the torch for coaching futility in conference title games to Pittsburgh's Bill Cowher. With Sunday's 41-27 defeat to the Patriots at Heinz Field, Cowher fell to 1-4 in AFC championship games, all at home. Reid is now 1-3 in NFC title games, including 1-2 at home. . . .
Steelers rookie quarterback Ben Roethlisberger lost his first game as an NFL starter Sunday after 13 consecutive wins during the regular season and a victory over the New York Jets in an AFC semifinal. In the Steelers' two playoff games, Roethlisberger completed 31 of 54 passes for 407 yards with three touchdowns and five interceptions, two of which were returned for touchdowns.
Browns Still Waiting
The Patriots' triumph Sunday keeps the Cleveland Browns waiting to hire New England defensive coordinator Romeo Crennel as their head coach. Crennel has emerged as Cleveland's clear front-runner, and Browns President John Collins said from the outset of the search that the club would wait until after the Super Bowl, if necessary, to land the right coach.
But NFL teams generally grow impatient and want to hire their head coaches sooner than that so that they can get started assembling a staff and readying for free agency and the draft. If the Browns waver, Steelers assistant head coach Russ Grimm is now available to them, as is former Miami Dolphins interim coach Jim Bates.
Assuming that the Browns remain patient and Crennel gets the job, it appears increasingly likely that he would retain Terry Robiskie, who served as Cleveland's interim coach after Butch Davis's departure, as his offensive coordinator. His defensive coordinator could be Patriots defensive line coach Pepper Johnson. The favorite to succeed Crennel in New England would be Eric Mangini, the Patriots' defensive backs coach. . . .
The Patriots' run to a third Super Bowl appearance in four years also is keeping others on hold. The Dolphins remain unable to interview Dean Pees, New England's linebackers coach, for their defensive-coordinator job. If new Dolphins coach Nick Saban grows tired of waiting, he perhaps could go ahead and hire Tampa Bay Buccaneers defensive backs coach Mike Tomlin. Bates, the Dolphins' defensive coordinator under former coach Dave Wannstedt, told Saban that he did not want to stay.
Bates, meantime, has refused to consider defensive-coordinator jobs league-wide while he's still in the running for the head-coaching position in Cleveland. His latest opportunity could be in Green Bay, where Packers Coach Mike Sherman has not decided yet whether to retain defensive coordinator Bob Slowik. Sherman gave the job to Slowik after dismissing Ed Donatell following the Eagles' conversion of a fourth-and-26 play on their way to a game-tying field goal in regulation and an overtime triumph over the Packers during last season's playoffs. Donatell was hired in Atlanta by new Falcons coach Jim Mora and helped the club improve from last in the NFL in total defense last season to 14th this season.
Pennington Facing Surgery
Jets quarterback Chad Pennington reportedly will undergo surgery on his right shoulder after an MRI exam last week showed that he played with a torn rotator cuff late in the season.
The extent of the tear will not be known until doctors perform the procedure in the coming weeks. A partial tear would require two to three months of rehabilitation, while a complete tear would take four to six months. Either way, the Jets hope to have Pennington ready for training camp.
The Jets had described Pennington's injury as a strained rotator cuff. Pennington missed three regular-season games because of the injury but returned to help the Jets reach the second round of the AFC playoffs before losing a conference semifinal at Pittsburgh in overtime after kicker Doug Brien missed two would-be go-ahead field goals in the final two minutes of regulation.
Nolan Hires Singletary
New San Francisco 49ers coach Mike Nolan hired Mike Singletary on Friday as his assistant head coach and linebackers coach. Singletary was the first assistant coach hired by Nolan. The Hall of Fame linebacker worked for Nolan for two seasons in Baltimore as the Ravens' inside linebackers coach when Nolan was the club's defensive coordinator. . . .
St. Louis Rams Coach Mike Martz hired Bob Ligashesky as the club's special teams coach Friday, a day after firing Mike Stock. Ligashesky will be Martz's fourth special teams coach in six seasons. He spent last season as an assistant to Jacksonville special teams coach Pete Rodriguez. He formerly was an assistant coach on an Arizona State staff that also included Martz and Larry Marmie, now the Rams' defensive coordinator. . . .
Jacksonville tailback Fred Taylor underwent arthroscopic surgery last week to have a torn MCL in his left knee repaired. Taylor missed the final two games of the Jaguars' season. He ran for 1,224 yards this season. . . .
Agent Peter Schaffer, who represents Cincinnati tailback Rudi Johnson, has told the Bengals that Johnson would sit out next season if the team uses its franchise-player tag to keep him off the unrestricted free agent market in the spring. Club officials have been discussing a long-term contract for Johnson with Schaffer, attempting to re-sign him before the free agent market opens to avoid using the franchise tag. . . . Paul Hackett, who last week stepped down under pressure as Jets offensive coordinator, was named Tampa Bay's quarterbacks coach today.