- The Washington Times - Monday, January 19, 2004

PHILADELPHIA — One by one the passes flew from the hands of Philadelphia Eagles quarterbacks into those of Carolina Panthers defenders. The Eagles’ scoring chances frittered away, and an improbable Panthers run to the NFC title was complete.

Riding a record-matching three interceptions by rookie cornerback Ricky Manning Jr. and a fourth by linebacker Dan Morgan, Carolina secured its first trip to the Super Bowl with a 14-3 victory over Philadelphia last night before 65,158 at Lincoln Financial Field.

The Eagles were inside the Panthers 20 on two of the interceptions, both in the second half. But Carolina’s defense came up with the crucial plays to send Philadelphia to its third straight loss and second consecutive at home in the NFC Championship game.

“It was all about making plays in adverse situations,” said Morgan, who all but sealed the game when he intercepted a Koy Detmer pass at the Panthers 9 with 5:16 left. “That’s what we’ve been preaching all year. When you’ve got an opportunity for a turnover, don’t drop it.”

The Panthers (14-5) certainly didn’t. And now, just two years removed from going 1-15, Carolina will meet the New England Patriots in Super Bowl XXXVIII in Houston in two weeks.

Manning’s three picks — in just under 9 minutes spanning the second and third quarters — were thrown by Eagles star Donovan McNabb, who was knocked from the game in the waning moments of the third quarter. Manning, an unheralded third-round draft pick out of UCLA, matched an NFC title game mark set by the Green Bay Packers’ Joe Laws in 1944.

A rally by the Eagles (13-5) still seemed possible, considering they were outplayed by Green Bay a week earlier and still managed to win. But on third-and-3 deep into Detmer’s first possession, he threw right at Morgan, who dropped back over the middle in zone coverage.

The interceptions proved the biggest plays on an otherwise solid but unspectacular day by the Panthers. Quarterback Jake Delhomme completed nine of 14 passes with a touchdown and no interceptions, and running backs Stephen Davis, the former Redskin who overcame a strained left quadriceps to play, and DeShaun Foster combined for 136 yards on 33 carries.

“It all starts with Coach Fox,” Delhomme said. “He wants high-character players first and foremost, good football players second. I think that typifies us. We don’t have any superstars. Stephen is a superstar, but he doesn’t want to be. We don’t have a lot of egos. We’re not a selfish bunch.”

The Eagles also are known as a sum greater than their parts, a club devoid of offensive stars outside McNabb. He almost single-handedly rallied Philadelphia over Green Bay in the divisional round, but yesterday he posted a rating of just 19.3 and rushed only twice for 10 yards.

Of course, McNabb wasn’t the only Eagle to underperform as the team absorbed another defeat just short of the Super Bowl.

“We could point fingers, but the bottom line is we got outplayed [in] all three [championship games],” veteran cornerback Troy Vincent said. “You’re not going to win NFC titles scoring three points. You’re not going to win without creating turnovers. We didn’t get it done on offense or defense today.”

The final blow to McNabb came from safety Jarrod Cooper. McNabb waited and waited in the pocket before finally letting loose a deep attempt to Duce Staley. Cooper’s hit exacerbated a rib injury McNabb suffered in the first half.

Manning’s second pick, which came on the second half’s first series, particularly hurt the Eagles, who were trailing 7-3. Strong runs by Staley and Correll Buckhalter advanced Philadelphia to the Panthers 18, where an incompletion by McNabb set up third-and-6. McNabb’s next try was a quick toss to Todd Pinkston on the right wing, but Manning squatted, and the ball went right to him.

His third interception set up Carolina’s second touchdown. Four plays after Manning returned the ball to the Philadelphia 37, Panthers receiver Steve Smith drew a pass interference penalty in the end zone. Foster then bulled through at least three would-be tacklers and put the Eagles down 14-3.

McNabb, who was sacked eight times by Green Bay a week earlier, was taken down four times in yesterday’s first half. Several were costly — the first knocked the Eagles out of field goal range (they later punted), and the second momentarily did the same, though a challenge by Philadelphia gave Freddie Mitchell a dicey 10-yard catch on third down and set up a 41-yard field goal by David Akers.

That score cut the Eagles’ deficit to 7-3, which held up to the half. But McNabb already was nicked up, having injured his ribs on a hit by Panthers linebacker Greg Favors with 4:18 left in the half.

Carolina’s early score came on a 24-yard toss to wide receiver Muhsin Muhammad. Pro Bowl corner Bobby Taylor was in position to knock down the pass, which Delhomme lofted as he was being taken down. But Taylor overran the play, and Muhammad did a nice job of stopping and securing the ball.

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