- The Washington Times - Sunday, January 23, 2005

PHILADELPHIA — The Philadelphia Eagles have it all: an NFC-best 14-3 record, an NFL-high nine Pro Bowl players and a gaping edge in big-game and cold-weather experience over the dome-loving Atlanta Falcons, who visit for today’s wintry NFC Championship game.

Of course, the Eagles had most of those advantages in last year’s NFC finale, too, but were stunned by the Carolina Panthers 16-3. The third straight defeat for Philadelphia in the NFC title game, and its second in a row at home, prompted coach Andy Reid to trade for temperamental receiver Terrell Owens in March. The move paid off handsomely until Owens went down Dec.19 in Dallas with a sprained ankle and fractured fibula.

Owens’ injury sent a shudder through sports-mad Philadelphia, not only for the loss of his considerable talents but because it summoned memories of last January when the Eagles’ offense was hamstrung by the absence of injured all-purpose back Brian Westbrook.

The Fort Washington resident is healthy now and was the only NFL player to top 700 yards rushing and receiving, but is Westbrook’s presence enough for the Eagles to reach their first Super Bowl in 24 years?

“I would be wrong to say I didn’t wish I had Brian last year,” Reid said. “He’s a big part of the team. [But] that’s no excuse for not taking care of business in the championship game.”

Westbrook led Philadelphia with 117 yards on 17 touches in last week’s 27-14 divisional-round victory over Minnesota. Quarterback Donovan McNabb remains the Eagles’ star, but Westbrook could be the difference-maker against Atlanta.

“Westbrook’s a tremendous threat,” Falcons linebacker Keith Brooking said. “He has great explosiveness and quickness, finds the hole, can get the tough yards inside and be a threat on the perimeter. In the receiving game, you’d think it was [wideouts Todd] Pinkston or Freddie Mitchell because he runs great routes and has great hands.”

The Falcons (12-5) don’t have a big-time wideout either, but they have the NFL’s second-most productive running attack of the last 15 seasons. Atlanta churned out 327 yards in last week’s 47-17 rout of St. Louis with speedy quarterback Michael Vick and waterbug Warrick Dunn combining for 261 yards and bruising T.J. Duckett adding 66. Eagles defensive end Jevon Kearse said Vick can make defenders look silly, but Philadelphia held him to 30 yards on six carries and picked him off twice in their only meeting, a 20-6 playoff victory in 2002.

“Our run defense will hold up fine,” Eagles defensive coordinator Jim Johnson said of a unit that struggled early in the year and allowed 4.6 yards a carry last week. “I’m very confident.”

Although the Falcons haven’t played in sub-40 degree weather this year and Vick and Dunn thrive on the fast artificial turf of domes, Eagles linebacker Ike Reese doesn’t agree with the assumption that the home team will be blessed by the frosty forecast.

“There’s no advantage for us if it rains or snows,” Reese said. “Sloppy weather games are tailor-made for running teams.”

Ultimately, whichever team emerges as the NFC’s best is going to need a big day from its Pro Bowl quarterback. Vick, who partly modeled his game after McNabb, his host on a recruiting visit to Syracuse in 1997, thinks the two remain similar. Others see major differences because McNabb has had six years to develop in the West Coast offense while Vick is new to the intricate scheme.

“Donovan’s looking to throw the ball first,” Eagles safety Brian Dawkins said. “When everybody is covered he’ll tuck that thing and get 20 yards. With Mike, he goes through his first read and if that’s not open, he’s tucking it and running it.”

Atlanta couldn’t run or pass in the 12 starts Vick missed with a broken leg in 2003, going 2-10. First-year coach Jim Mora gives his quarterback much of the credit for this year’s renaissance, along with a much-improved defense led by Brooking, end Patrick Kerney and tackle Rod Coleman. The upbeat Mora declared the Falcons are playing with “house money” at this point because no one expected them to be here.

“I know the pressure’s not on us,” Vick agreed.

Not so for the Eagles, who are tired of talking about their past.

“We would love to see [the media] move on, but the story sells, so you’ll continue to write about it,” said defensive tackle Corey Simon, one of 14 Eagles playing in a fourth straight conference title game. “Thinking about last year and the year before that will get you beat this week. So we can’t focus on that. It’s not even a part of who we are. This is a different team in a different season.”

And as far as the Eagles are concerned, it’s time for a different result, too.

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