- The Washington Times - Sunday, January 27, 2002

The St. Louis Rams' "Greatest Show on Turf" offense might prove only the backdrop of today's NFC Championship game. Instead, the matchup of Philadelphia Eagles quarterback Donovan McNabb against the Rams' defense could decide which team advances to Super Bowl XXXVI.
Ignore the background noise of St. Louis' top-rated passing offense meeting Philadelphia's second-rated pass defense. They'll counterpunch each other. Whether the Rams advance to their second Super Bowl in three years or the Eagles reach their first since 1981 is all about McNabb's ability to scramble past St. Louis' defense.
St. Louis (15-2) won a similar matchup to eliminate Green Bay 45-17 in the NFC playoffs last Sunday by scoring on three of Green Bay quarterback Brett Favre's six interceptions. The Eagles (13-5) have a solid runner in Duce Staley and enough passing options to keep McNabb busy, but Philadelphia scored 64 points in two playoff wins mainly behind McNabb's scrambling.
And he doesn't just tuck the ball under his arm as a glorified running back. McNabb also makes big passes by moving around in the backfield until a receiver comes open.
"He's at his best when he's breaking containment, buying receivers time and just kind of ad-libbing out there," Rams defensive end Grant Wistrom said. "That's why he's playing much better now than he did early in the year. We have to maintain our rush lanes and not give him big gaps to hit and get outside the pocket or run the football."
McNabb isn't simply the second coming of former Eagles quarterback Randall Cunningham. He's seemingly the 6.0 version. While McNabb can break a long run, the Eagles forced him to stay in the backfield earlier this season to improve his decision making. After some early struggles, Philadelphia has won six of seven since McNabb started relying more on his arm.
"I have already seen him throw a number of balls where he was very close to the line of scrimmage," Rams cornerback Aeneas Williams said. "He is in that gray area where as a defensive player you are caught between running up and tackling him and staying back to prevent the pass."
Philadelphia's defense has been impressive during the late-season run, allowing more than 14 points only twice in seven games. However, McNabb knows the visiting 11-point underdogs must rely on him to shock the Rams. No worries, he said.
"There are not a lot of people that are giving us a chance to win. It makes it even sweeter for us," McNabb said.
The St. Louis defense is also looking to prove its shutdown of Favre wasn't a fluke. The Rams have the third-rated run and overall defense.
"It seems like we always have a point to prove every Sunday," Rams cornerback Dre Bly said. "We haven't received the credit all year. Everyone's talking about our offense or other defenses. The big talk for every game is our offense, and we always get overlooked."
Meanwhile, the Eagles will challenge Rams quarterback Kurt Warner, whose bruised ribs leave him vulnerable. Philadelphia's second-ranked pass defense should counter St. Louis' four-receiver sets, with the line expected to blitz heavily.
"Kurt loves the challenge," Rams tight end Ernie Conwell said. "He likes it when there's pressure coming up front and he has to make quick decisions."
Whether Eagles cornerback Troy Vincent can be effective despite missing the past week's practices with a sore groin is also paramount. Philadelphia matches up well against St. Louis receivers with Vincent, but using backup Al Harris instead would cause a major dropoff in the Eagles' nickel and dime packages.
"Al's still a young guy and he'll make some mistakes, but he's proven he can play," said Eagles defensive coordinator Jim Johnson. "He's a real bonus. The thing about a corner is that you are going to make a few mistakes."
Many players and coaches said they barely remember St. Louis beating Philadelphia 20-17 in overtime on Sept. 9 despite McNabb's 32 of 48 for 312 yards with two touchdowns and one interception. Teams often change greatly over the four-month season, but Eagles coach Andy Reid recently reviewed the season opener looking for clues.
"I think we are vastly improved, and I think they are too," he said. "It took us a quarter or so to get a feel for the tempo and what they were doing [in the opener], but I think we settled down in the second half and played good football. With that defense, you are going to have limited success."

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