PHILADELPHIA Philadelphia quarterback Donovan McNabb was finally unleashed yesterday, and that meant a runaway victory for the Eagles.
McNabb abandoned his forced pocket style this season to scramble for several long runs and completions. The sporadic big plays proved overwhelming as McNabb led the Eagles to a 31-9 victory over the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in the opening round of the NFC playoffs at Veterans Stadium.
Philadelphia (12-5) advances to Saturday’s NFC semifinals at Chicago (13-3). The NFC East champions feel pressured to reach the NFC Championship game Jan. 26 after being eliminated in the second round last year.
“We feel like we have to win the next three games to show we’ve matured,” Eagles safety Damon Moore said.
Tampa Bay (9-8) completed another underachieving season that may cost coach Tony Dungy his job. The Bucs reportedly will sign Bill Parcells in coming days. Dungy refused to say it was his last game, but Eagles coach Andy Reid expressed outrage over Dungy’s expected firing.
“We all need to pat [Dungy] on the back,” Reid said. “He has taken that program and brought that thing back. He is a class act.”
Said Bucs linebacker Derrick Brooks: “It is hard for me to imagine Coach Dungy not being the coach here. It is very hard. … We have dealt with rumors since I have been here.”
McNabb helped grease the slide for Dungy and the Bucs by combining for 251 yards and two touchdowns. As he did in 2000, the scrambling McNabb created his best moments on the run, turning busted plays into a 39-yard run, a 41-yard completion and a 16-yard touchdown pass.
“I was just going through my reads and when there was nothing there, I just tried to pick up yards,” McNabb said. “It set up some things downfield.”
McNabb completed 16 of 25 for 194 yards with two touchdowns, one interception and a 97.8 pass rating and also picked up 57 yards rushing. He largely spent the first half creating plays.
“Donovan stepped up with his legs,” Eagles tight end Chad Lewis said. “When Donovan didn’t have time he made time. He will keep the ball alive longer than any quarterback.”
Said Reid: “Donovan did a nice job with his patience in the pocket.”
The Bucs’ offense felt the big chill, and it wasn’t the 46-degree kickoff temperature that avoided Tampa Bay’s famed 0-20 when playing in 40 degrees or less. Then again, the Bucs fell to 6-35 when it is 50 degrees or less.
Instead, it was the Eagles’ defense that chilled the Bucs. Philadelphia regularly pressured Tampa Bay quarterback Brad Johnson into repeated mistakes. Johnson threw four interceptions and finished just 22 of 36 for 202 yards and a 36.8 pass rating.
“We believe when the ball’s in the air, it’s ours,” said Moore, whose second interception turned into a 59-yard touchdown. “We expect turnovers.”
The Bucs’ running game was also repeatedly met at the line. Tampa Bay gained only 63 yards on 24 carries. Conversely, the Eagles rushed for 148 yards behind Correll Buckhalter (55 yards) and Duce Staley (34).
Philadelphia led 17-9 at halftime. After the teams traded short field goals, Philadelphia scored on Lewis’ 16-yard touchdown reception when McNabb scrambled outside to find him in the middle of the end zone with 12:17 remaining in the first half.
“Donovan kept things alive with his feet and let me find the soft spot in the end zone,” Lewis said.
Tampa Bay rebounded with a 32-yard field goal with 6:13 remaining to close to 10-6. However, an interception set up Eagles running back Duce Staley’s touchdown on a 23-yard screen pass with 35 seconds left. Tampa Bay used a 46-yard reception by receiver Keyshawn Johnson to kick a 27-yard field goal as time expired in the first half.
Buckhalter seemingly sealed the Eagles’ victory with a 25-yard touchdown run for a 24-9 lead with 6:57 left in the third quarter. Philadelphia fans then started chanting for second-round opponent Chicago.