- The Washington Times - Thursday, January 13, 2005

PHILADELPHIA — They were blown out in their last two games by mediocre teams while resting several starters, including quarterback Donovan McNabb.

Their most dangerous weapon, Pro Bowl receiver Terrell Owens, remains out with a fractured fibula.

They didn’t score more than 17 points in any of their final four regular-season games.

And they have lost three straight NFC Championship games, the last two at home.

Still, the 13-3 Philadelphia Eagles say they aren’t worried heading into Sunday’s playoff opener against upstart Minnesota.

“It’s sad when you don’t play one or two games and all of a sudden people think you’re out of sync,” McNabb said.

And even if the Eagles aren’t sharp at the start Sunday, Pro Bowl special teams player Ike Reese said that won’t last long.

“If we do come out a little rusty, it may last a series or two, but after that, we’ll get back into our rhythm,” Reese said. “If we lose Sunday, it won’t be because we were off for three weeks. It will be because Minnesota outplayed us or because we beat ourselves.”

Not that the Eagles, who rolled through the first 12 games with only a loss to the Steelers, expect to fail.

“This is the first time an Eagles team has done what we’ve done,” Pro Bowl safety Brian Dawkins said of the team-record 13 victories and fourth consecutive NFC East title. “We have a nice little swagger. The confidence is real high. When you constantly win, it gives you a certain level of confidence.”

Defensive end Derrick Burgess said that cockiness wasn’t so evident during the past four trips to postseason.

“The last couple of years, there wasn’t the same swagger,” Burgess said. “It was like, ‘OK. We’re here again. Let’s get back to the NFC [Championship game].’ That’s not the case this year.”

Coach Andy Reid gambled by calling off the dogs in mid-December with the expectation that his playoff-tested players — 13 saw action in the three NFC title games, and six others played in at least one of those games — can turn it back on at crunch time.

“I did what I felt was best for this team,” Reid said. “You bank on your veterans who have been there. They understand the urgency. I don’t have to preach about the importance of the playoffs.”

Just as important as the experience of stars like McNabb and Dawkins is the defense’s top addition, pass-rushing end Jevon Kearse, plus the presence of Burgess, running back Brian Westbrook, guard Jermane Mayberry and defensive tackle Hollis Thomas, all of whom missed last year’s playoffs with injuries.

So the Eagles feel bolstered even though Owens’ absence — at least until the Super Bowl on Feb.6 — leaves them even weaker at receiver than they were in last year’s NFC Championship game. In that stunning 14-3 loss to Carolina, wideouts Todd Pinkston, Freddie Mitchell and since-traded James Thrash combined for five catches and 47 yards.

Having relatively untested Keith Adams as the likely starter at weakside linebacker in place of the ailing pair of Mark Simoneau and Nate Wayne isn’t a major cause of concern either, despite the Vikings’ potent offense.

“We’re a lot healthier this year,” Reese said. “The experience is there. There’s a fresher energy. The time is right. Everything’s in the right place for us. We’ve just got to go out there and take care of business like we’ve been doing this season.”

Dawkins said he’s not as anxious as he was before the loss to the Panthers. Reese agreed that the locker room atmosphere is looser despite the expectation of the Eagles’ first Super Bowl trip in 24 years — a feeling that was cemented with the acquisitions of Owens and Kearse 10 months ago.

“We don’t feel like there’s any extra pressure on us,” Reese explained. “We’ve lost three straight championship games, two straight at home. If we lose again this week or next week, nothing can be said about us that wasn’t said before.”

Ultimately the pressure to erase the Eagles’ label as a team incapable of winning the big one rests with McNabb, the first quarterback to throw for 30 touchdowns with less than 10 interceptions. And that’s fine with him.

“I love the pressure being on my shoulders,” McNabb said. “I play the game to get out there and show people what I can do. This is the time to do it.”

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