Michael Wilbon on the NFC Playoffs
EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. The Road to the Super Bowl no longer goes through Giants Stadium in the NFC. It no longer leaves the New Jersey Turnpike at Exit 16W. It no longer has Tom Coughlin's winter-red face or the Giants' 'D' or Brandon Jacobs, that big rhino of a runner. Difficult as this is to believe, the road to the Super Bowl in the NFC now officially runs through the desert, out through Phoenix and around Loop 101 to a place called Glendale, which sprang up overnight between the cacti. That is where the Arizona Cardinals, of all teams, will welcome the Philadelphia Eagles on Sunday afternoon.
Both are party crashers. The Cardinals have never been invited to anything worth attending in their natural lives, 85 or so years in the NFL. The Eagles have plenty of pedigree but were discounted this season. Their invite to the Big Game never was addressed, not after looking like ragamuffins in mid-November against the Bengals and Ravens.
Nonetheless, the Philadelphia Eagles will be favored to reach the Super Bowl because they took down the defending champs here Sunday. The team that was 5-5-1 and appeared closer to being dismantled than contending for anything came to Giants Stadium and stuffed Eli Manning and the G-Men. In one of those matchups that former Philadelphia quarterback Ron Jaworski likes to characterize as "Manhood Football," the Eagles were the manliest men on the field.
They held the Giants to three field goals and a questionable safety. The highlight of the inartistic, brutal affair had to be the Eagles, on back-to-back series in the fourth quarter, slamming the Giants backward on critical fourth-down plays that sent freezing New York fans to their cars. Defenders named Brodrick Bunkley, Trent Cole, Stewart Bradley, Brian Dawkins and Chris Gocong were the heroes and their Yoda of a defensive guru, Jim Johnson, put Manning and the Giants in his pocket again.
Andy Reid even jumped out of his monotone when he said: "People say I like to throw the ball around and coach on the offensive side. I know that you win games on defense and mashing the football. I'm partial, but I've got the best defensive coordinator in the National Football League. The guys believe in him and the things he does. He's kept it fresh for them. For being almost 100 years old, he's kept it fresh."
Meanwhile, the offensive line (with help from the tight ends and running backs) held the Giants without a sack for the third time this season. That left Donovan McNabb just enough time to make some wonderful third-down conversion passes that had his coach and teammates singing his praises afterward as we've rarely heard during his 10 years as the starting quarterback in Philadelphia.
Yes, even though 22 of 40 for 217 yards and two interceptions with a passer rating of 58 is hardly the stuff of legends, McNabb was the star in many ways. And he was certainly better than Manning, who completed only 15 of 29 passes to go with a pair of interceptions and a 40.7 passer rating. But McNabb, who was benched in that loss to Baltimore and was the subject of immense ridicule in Philly for at least a couple of weeks, completed the passes he absolutely had to and scrapped the seven-step dropback passes early because the Giants' pass rush was in his face too often. There are McNabb watchers who swear he has never played better than he has these last seven games (6-1, 11 touchdowns, 4 interceptions).
McNabb doesn't really dispute that, saying afterward, "I've been having a great time during this run." He apologized to his teammates and coaches for picking up a 15-yard penalty for goofing around with a telephone on the Giants' sideline late in the game, saying it resulted from getting caught up in the moment. A lopsided victory over -- ready for irony? -- Arizona in Philly on Thanksgiving night started the U-turn. The birth of his twins several days later also relieved a ton of anxiety. "It may have affected the way I thought and played," he said.
Suddenly, with McNabb one victory from a second Super Bowl appearance, nobody is talking about where he might be playing the rest of his career. Nobody's wondering if he's a capable leader, the way ex-teammate Terrell Owens did aloud a few years ago. McNabb and Reid are going to their fifth NFC championship game in their 10 years together, while T.O. has gone to none since he left McNabb's team -- and went to just one before he joined McNabb's team.
Asked whether he ever felt worried about McNabb this season, Eagles owner Jeffrey Lurie said: "I feel protective of Donovan. He shoulders so much; that position does. He has his family and he has his Eagles family." Told that at least two Giants players observed that McNabb is a much better quarterback after the benching than before, Lurie said: "I can't say I see that. I really can't say that. But I see him evolving even further as a quarterback and as a leader. He's still young . He's in that sweet spot for quarterbacks. I wasn't so specific when I talked to him. I just try to be supportive and tell him I'm proud of him."
Who knows what the Giants will tell themselves now that their season has ended early? What's apparent to those of us who thought they'd continue seamlessly after suspending wide receiver Plaxico Burress is that we were idiots.
Without Burress, 6 feet 5 with an NBA vertical leap, the Giants are one-dimensional offensively. They lost their best receiver in the red zone, their big target on critical third-down plays. Johnson said afterward, "Plaxico always seemed like he came up with a big play down there."
You can't keep losing your best players and continue to be the champs. The Giants played Sunday without Burress, without the retired Michael Strahan, without pass rusher extraordinaire Osi Umenyiora. Good riddance to Jeremy Shockey; he was ably replaced by Kevin Boss. But the Giants did not have a comparable replacement for Burress, who either keeps you out of some third-and-longs or converts them.
"When he isn't there," Dawkins said, "a huge part of their offense is taken away. You don't have to be as concerned about roaming from one guy to another because you can't play Plaxico one-on-one without expecting him to have a huge game."
Overall, the Giants looked less than mediocre in losing four of their final five games. The Eagles, except for a Dec. 21 loss to the Redskins, have been soaring for weeks. "I think this team has shown that we're strong mentally and physically," McNabb said. "Everyone believes in one another and given the opportunity we feel like we can take full advantage of it."