ST. LOUIS (AP) Three possessions, three straight punts.
After scoring touchdowns the last two times they had the ball in the first half, the Philadelphia Eagles couldn’t even get a first down when they needed it most.
Donovan McNabb went more than two quarters without running the ball, and the Eagles’ offense stalled in the second half, allowing the St. Louis Rams to take control on the way to a 29-24 victory in the NFC Championship game yesterday.
Philadelphia had the ball and was 55 yards away from taking the lead in the final two minutes. But McNabb’s pass to Freddie Mitchell was intercepted by Aeneas Williams on fourth-and-7 from the Eagles 48, and the Rams ran out the clock.
“We were in that position before. Guys wanted to make big plays, but we just couldn’t get it done,” McNabb said. “They brought more than we can handle. I tried to buy time. I looked at Chad [Lewis], and a linebacker was plastered on him. I looked at Freddie, and Aeneas was plastered on him. He made a great play and came down with the ball.”
The Eagles, who led 17-13 at halftime, lost the game in the third quarter when the offense couldn’t generate a first down and the Rams scored 10 points while holding the ball for 12:37.
After St. Louis cut it to 17-16 on a 41-yard field goal by Jeff Wilkins following a drive that lasted 6:59, the Eagles got the ball at their own 15.
On first down, the receivers were covered well, so McNabb was forced to throw it away. McNabb then overthrew Cecil Martin on a screen pass and completed an 8-yard pass to Duce Staley on third-and-10.
“Their defense stepped it up and made plays,” Staley said. “We had opportunities and couldn’t get it done.”
The Rams then drove 71 yards against a tired defense, taking a 22-17 lead on a 1-yard run by Marshall Faulk.
The Eagles started the next drive at their own 22 and again couldn’t do anything. On third-and-4, McNabb threw a pass slightly behind Lewis.
“We were making things happen, and Donovan was doing a great job of finding receivers,” Lewis said. “But we had to do a better job of sustaining a drive. We can’t let our defense be on the field that long.”
The defense finally forced the Rams to punt for the first time on the next possession, but McNabb was sacked for a 10-yard loss on first down, and the Eagles punted two plays later.
“We had to execute and we couldn’t make it happen,” left tackle Tra Thomas said. “They brought a couple stunts and more blitzes [in the second half], and we couldn’t stop it.”
McNabb finished 18-for-30 for 171 yards with one touchdown and one interception. He ran four times for 26 yards his lowest total in the playoffs and one score.
Just like they did in a 20-17 season-opening loss to St. Louis, the Eagles started slow. McNabb’s first pass was tipped, and he fumbled on the second play despite not getting hit, giving the Rams the ball at the 21.
St. Louis took a 7-0 lead five plays later.
“We spotted them seven points right from the door,” Staley said. “With their offense, we can’t do that.”
McNabb used his speed to beat the Chicago Bears last week and send the Eagles to the conference title game for the first time in 21 years. But after gaining 15 yards on two runs on Philadelphia’s second possession, McNabb didn’t leave the pocket until the fourth quarter.
“We’ll be back,” McNabb said.