- The Washington Times - Monday, January 24, 2005

PHILADELPHIA — The fourth time was the charm.

After losing three straight NFC Championship games, including the past two at home, the Philadelphia Eagles beat the Atlanta Falcons 27-10 in yesterday’s conference title game at frigid, wind-swept Lincoln Financial Field to reach their first Super Bowl in 24 years.

“It’s a great feeling,” coach Andy Reid said. “It makes it even more worthwhile that we had to do it four times to get over the hump.”

Linebacker Ike Reese, one of six players remaining from the 3-13 season of 1998, the year before Reid’s arrival, said he felt both relieved and excited.

“There was a lot of pent-up frustration from the previous three years, especially the last two having to watch the opposing team celebrate on your field,” Reese said.

The Eagles, who lost at St. Louis in 2001 and at home to Tampa Bay and Carolina the past two years, will give sports-crazed Philadelphia even more joy if they can provide the city’s first pro title in 22 years. They will face the defending champion New England Patriots in Super Bowl XXXIX on Feb.6 in Jacksonville, Fla.

Eagles quarterback Donovan McNabb, who played poorly in his previous title games, sparkled yesterday, completing 17 of 26 passes for 180 yards and two touchdowns to tight end Chad Lewis.

“Donovan had a tremendous game,” Falcons rookie coach Jim Mora raved. “He showed his maturity and his poise. He did a great job of dealing with the pressure that I’m sure they felt.”

But McNabb didn’t take much satisfaction in the victory.

“There’s no relief, really, for me,” McNabb said. “I’ll have relief after the Super Bowl.”

McNabb might have his favorite target, injured Pro Bowl receiver Terrell Owens, back for that game. But without Owens yesterday, McNabb received enough help from running back Brian Westbrook (96 yards on 16 carries plus a team-high five catches for 39 yards) and a defense that limited Falcons quarterback Michael Vick to 136 yards passing and 26 rushing, sacked him four times and picked him off once.

“Our gameplan was to stop the running game and to make sure that Vick didn’t get outside,” Eagles defensive coordinator Jim Johnson said. “We were going to be aggressive, but we were going to be smart. We were not going to let him get out to his left or right much. [If] he got some cutbacks, so he got some cutbacks. We were going to go after him. And we did a great job in the running game.”

Indeed, the defense held Atlanta’s NFL-best ground game — which ravaged the Rams for 324 yards last week — to 99 yards on 26 carries.

However, the underdog Falcons didn’t go down easily, at least until the second half. Philadelphia running back Dorsey Levens pushed the pile into the end zone from 4 yards out to make it 7-0 with 4:16 left in the first quarter, but Atlanta answered with a 17-play, 64-yard march. The drive consumed 8:57 but fell short inside the 2, forcing the visitors to settle for a 23-yard field goal by Jay Feely.

Atlanta appeared on the verge of being blown back down South when its challenge to Lewis’ toe-dragging act in the right corner of the end zone was denied, making the score 14-3. But after defensive tackle Sam Rayburn roughed Vick on a second-and-13 at the Atlanta 41, the quarterback responded with a 31-yard completion to tight end Alge Crumpler. Running back Warrick Dunn scooted in from the 10 on the next play to pull the Falcons within 14-10 at halftime.

Westbrook gained 48 yards on the first series of the second half to set up David Akers’ 31-yard field goal. Akers added a 34-yarder after safety Brian Dawkins intercepted Vick’s ugly pass at the Atlanta 30 with 2:56 to go in the third quarter.

“We came in at halftime, and we were juiced up,” Mora said. “We thought we had a chance, but in the third quarter they just made some plays and took over. We didn’t get it done.”

Still, the victory wasn’t assured until McNabb drove the Eagles 65 yards in 11 plays, hitting Lewis for a 2-yard touchdown that made it 27-10 with just 3:21 left.

“I knew I was going [to the Super Bowl] this morning,” boasted offensive tackle Jon Runyan, one of four Eagles who has been to the game. “It was just a formality going through the game.”

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