- The Washington Times - Sunday, January 18, 2004

Time for the Philadelphia Eagles to finish the job.

Three straight times the Eagles have reached this round of the playoffs, the NFC Championship. Twice now they have played at home. And they still are waiting for their first trip to the Super Bowl in more than two decades.

Two years of disappointment set this season up as Super Bowl-or-bust for Philadelphia’s rabid fans. That heartbreak now provides the key story line — not to mention the Eagles’ motivation — in today’s contest against the upstart Carolina Panthers at Lincoln Financial Field.

“That’s nothing but fuel for the fire,” Eagles quarterback Donovan McNabb told reporters this week. “We’re playing against a great team, a team that’s obviously on a roll right now just like we are. At 6:45 here at Lincoln Financial, there is going to be a lot of excitement.”

There certainly will be if last weekend was any indication. A pair of dramatic overtime victories advanced the Eagles and Panthers out of a divisional round that was dubbed by many observers the best ever.

If the NFL’s goal of parity helped achieve such tight divisional contests, Philadelphia, despite its lack of a title, clearly has emerged as a master of this era. The Eagles continue to build a blue-collar roster with the emphasis on long-term competitiveness, and they have been rewarded with a team that won 10 of its last 11 games and has no salary cap window closing in the foreseeable future.

That said, Philadelphia (13-4) is by no means a dominant team. The top-seeded Eagles might own an abundance of what coach Andy Reid calls “character,” but they certainly won’t invite comparisons to great NFL teams of yesteryear.

Their offense is devoid of game-breaking talent besides McNabb. Their defense struggles to stop the run. And last week against the Green Bay Packers, Philadelphia needed a historic fourth-and-26 conversion just to get to overtime — where Packers quarterback Brett Favre basically handed them the game with an awful interception.

Meanwhile, Carolina (13-5) has built momentum and confidence in the playoffs. The Panthers easily dispatched the Dallas Cowboys at home in the wild-card round, then built a big lead at St. Louis last weekend, only to lose it and hold off the talented Rams in overtime.

With a potentially stifling defense, a capable run game (regardless of whether injured feature back Stephen Davis plays) and budding offensive talents like quarterback Jake Delhomme and wide receiver Steve Smith, the Panthers have become many forecasters’ pick to waltz into the Linc and swipe the Eagles’ trip to Houston.

“I don’t feel any pressure,” Carolina wide receiver Muhsin Muhammad said. “I’m not stressed at all. I don’t think these guys are stressed. The guys that have been here before and played big games are approaching it like it’s just another game, and the young guys are following suit.”

Davis’ status is the biggest pregame question. The former Redskin rushed for a career-high 1,444 yards as a first-year Panther, but last week he strained his left quadriceps while galloping down the sideline on a 64-yard run.

After finally managing to practice Friday — or reportedly practice, because coach John Fox closed the workout for the first time all season — Davis emerged optimistic, if still not completely sure, about his prospects.

But even if Davis can’t go, the Panthers aren’t expected to lose too much with DeShaun Foster. The second-year running back racked up 95 yards on 21 carries after Davis went down in the second quarter at St. Louis.

“Stephen is a heck of a player, but the other guy isn’t half bad either,” Reid said. “You better prepare for a good running back. That’s what you better do. If Stephen’s not there, Foster will be and he’s a heck of a player.”

With that run game matching up against a poor Eagles run defense — a unit victimized for 210 yards last weekend — Carolina has a real opportunity to control the game.

But Philadelphia has one of the NFL’s true clutch performers in McNabb. Not rattled by an 0-2 start to the season, the Rush Limbaugh controversy, a 14-0 first-half deficit last weekend or a fourth-and-26 situation in the final two minutes, McNabb plays with a cool smile that defies the mounting pressure.

“Confidence plays a major part in everything that you do,” McNabb said. “As a quarterback, when you’re out there and you’re confident, smiling and just enjoying everything that’s going on, your teammates see that. Your teammates begin to rally around you, and they begin to follow your lead.”

It’s a path that could lead to the Eagles’ first Super Bowl date since after the 1980 season and first title since 1960 — if they finally can finish.

“All of the guys that have been here the last three, four or five years, we have a bad taste in our mouth,” running back Duce Staley said. “[We reached] this point three years in a row and the past two years. We all know what happened. We weren’t able to advance.”

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