- The Washington Times - Monday, January 17, 2005

PHILADELPHIA — The Philadelphia Eagles shook off the upstart Minnesota Vikings in yesterday’s divisional playoff game almost as easily as they did the rust from three virtual bye weeks.

That, however, doesn’t mean the host Eagles were satisfied with the 27-14 victory that made them just the fifth team to reach four straight conference title games since the AFL/NFL merger in 1970.

After losing the past three NFC Championship games, including the last two at home, the top-seeded Eagles (14-3) are determined not to let another opportunity at their first Super Bowl trip since the 1980 season slip out of their grasp Sunday against visiting Atlanta.

“We’re happy that we get a chance to play in a fourth straight title game, but it’s kind of a double-edged sword,” said reserve linebacker Ike Reese, one of 13 Eagles who will have played in all four of those games. “We’ve got to seal the deal next week. Come 6:30, 7 o’clock next Sunday, if we’re not popping bottles in here celebrating, the season is really a wash.”

Eagles coach Andy Reid was pleased with the way his team, particularly the defense, performed after many of his starters rested for the final two regular-season games before last week’s first-round bye. The defense picked off usually brilliant Vikings Pro Bowl quarterback Daunte Culpepper inside the Philadelphia 35-yard line on consecutive possessions in the third quarter and limited ailing receiver Randy Moss to three catches for 51 yards.

“I was proud of the guys coming back off their rest period. It seemed they had a lot of energy and got after it pretty good,” Reid said. “The defense did a heck of a job against a very explosive offense. They came out and really took it to ‘em.”

Meanwhile, an offense that had not topped 17 points in the past four games scored 14 points in the first 16 minutes. Freddie Mitchell, filling in for injured Pro Bowl receiver Terrell Owens, caught a 2-yard touchdown pass from quarterback Donovan McNabb at the right pylon to end Philadelphia’s second series, and running back Brian Westbrook beat former Maryland linebacker E.J. Henderson to haul in a 7-yard toss from McNabb that made it 14-0 just 44 seconds into the second quarter.

Culpepper kept the Vikings (9-9) in the game with a 40-yard completion to wideout Marcus Robinson on third-and-8 on the ensuing drive, which ended when he bulled into the end zone on a 7-yard keeper.

However, Mitchell was “Freddie on the spot” when Philadelphia took over, grabbing tight end L.J. Smith’s fumble out of the air in the end zone for a touchdown that returned the lead to 14 points.

“I’m just glad I got the opportunity to make plays,” said Mitchell, who has 13 catches and four touchdowns since Owens went down, compared to 14 catches and no touchdowns the first 14 games. “I definitely want to say hi to all my new friends out there, the people who doubted me and the receivers.”

Minnesota then drove to the Philadelphia 3, but after defensive end Jevon Kearse forced Culpepper to throw the ball away on third down, the Vikings outwitted themselves. Moss was supposed to replace lineman Cory Withrow surreptitiously and catch a pass on a fake field goal from holder Gus Frerotte. But Withrow didn’t leave the field, coaches pulled Moss from the field in fear of a penalty and Frerotte had nowhere to go with the ball.

“I turned around to throw the ball, and [Moss] wasn’t there,” Frerotte said. “I … felt sick to my stomach. I knew that we had a touchdown, and they had no idea that it was going to happen.”

Added Vikings coach Mike Tice: “When you play a good team on the road, you can’t leave some [points] on the field. That hurt us a little bit.”

So did the interceptions by Reese and fellow linebacker Jeremiah Trotter at the Philadelphia 28 and 34, respectively, which ended Minnesota’s first two possessions of the second half. Then Moss, double-covered, couldn’t get free on Culpepper’s fourth-and-22 pass into the end zone on the Vikings’ next series. Minnesota wouldn’t cross midfield again until David Akers had given Philadelphia a 27-7 lead with two field goals and just 3:02 remained.

“Everybody was worried about how we would come back and play this week after being off so long,” Reese said. “I think we answered a lot of questions today.”

Yes, but the more important question, the one they have failed to answer for three straight years, comes Sunday.

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