PHILADELPHIA (AP)—Fireworks soared above the roof of “The Linc.” A blizzard of glitter swirled in the bitterly cold breeze. Fans toasted their team and each other with beers and hugs.
It was a Super-sized celebration four years in the making. And quite a relief, too.
Yo, Philly, how’s this sound?
Your Eagles are going to the Super Bowl.
McNabb isn’t satisfied yet.
“There’s no relief for me,” he said. “We’ll have relief after the Super Bowl. We set a goal of winning the Super Bowl, not just the NFC. So that’s where I’m going. We’re excited, but we’re not done.”
The Eagles already have soothed a city’s fragile psyche, burying the disappointment of the last three years and pulling within one victory of Philly’s first major pro championship since the 76ers won the NBA title in 1983.
Twenty-four years ago, the Eagles made it to their first—and, until Sunday, only—Super Bowl with a team coached by Dick Vermeil and led by Ron Jaworski. They fell flat in the title game, losing to the Raiders 27-10.
That score went the Eagles’ way this time. They will meet New England in Jacksonville, Fla., on Feb. 6 for the NFL championship. The Patriots beat the host Steelers, across Pennsylvania in Pittsburgh, 41-27 for the AFC title.
“We want to go to Jacksonville and get some closure and finish this up,” receiver Freddie Mitchell said.
The fourth consecutive appearance in the NFC title game proved to be the charm for the Eagles, even though they didn’t have top receiver Terrell Owens— reduced to the role of MVC (Most Valuable Cheerleader) on the sideline.
Nothing was going to stand in the way of this team, which entered the season with a Super Bowl or Bust mentality and met those enormous expectations.
McNabb threw a pair of touchdown passes to Chad Lewis, including the clinching score with 3:21 remaining. That turned the final minutes into a delirious coronation, the 67,717 fans saluting a team that fulfilled its destiny.
“Super Bowl! Super Bowl!” they chanted when play was halted for the two-minute warning.
The only warm-weather team left in the playoffs went cold in its biggest game of the year. Vick was sacked four times by the fearsome Philly defense, which also came up with a crucial interception that set up David Akers’ second field goal.
The significance of the day was evident on the field—the Eagles pranced and posed after every big play—and in the stands, where most of the fans never bothered to sit down on a 17-degree day.
“This team has great personality,” coach Andy Reid said. “Everybody here in Philadelphia loves ‘em.”
The Eagles will be going for their first NFL title since 1960, which predates the Super Bowl by six seasons.
McNabb completed 17-of-26 passes for 180 yards, a workmanlike performance that solidified his position as one of the game’s best quarterbacks. He also ran 10 times for 32 yards.
Vick’s debut on the Super Bowl stage will have to wait. He completed just 11-of-24 for 136 yards, while the Eagles stifling defense kept him from pulling off one of his signature runs.
He ran it just four times for 26 yards, but gave up even more yards on the sacks. Derrick Burgess dropped the elusive quarterback twice, and Jevon Kearse kept Vick hemmed up on the other side. The Eagles didn’t blitz much—a change in philosophy—but they made sure Vick didn’t get a chance to warm up.
“I didn’t get outside the pocket,” Vick said. “I think that was their first priority.”
Philadelphia led only 14-10 at halftime, a bit too close for a team that had lost to St. Louis, Tampa Bay and Carolina in the last three NFC title games. Even more galling—the two more recent defeats were at home.
But, as the sun gave way to a nearly full moon over Lincoln Financial Field, the Eagles dominated the final two quarters. Akers connected from 31 and 34 yards, then McNabb and Lewis teamed up to finish off the Falcons with their 2-yard touchdown.
Owens, who didn’t play because of a severe ankle injury, had a prominent role nonetheless. He drew plenty of attention with his sideline antics, flapping his arms and waving a towel to urge on a crowd that didn’t need any encouragement.
And he may just recover in time for the Super Bowl.
“I have a feeling he will,” Reid said.
Owens’ teammates filled in admirably. McNabb worked his passes around to eight players, led by Brian Westbrook with five catches for 39 yards. Westbrook also handled the bulk of the running load, carrying 16 times for 96 yards.
Then, it was time for the party—Philly-style.
“For those about to rock, we salute you,” AC-DC screamed over the sound system. Fireworks went off above the stadium. And tons of glitter fluttered over the field, recreating the blizzard that swept through the city a day earlier.
“This is their fourth trip in a row to the championship game,” said Jim Mora, the Falcons’ rookie coach. “They’ve been in this position before, and they played like they’ve been in this position before.”
It was a great season for the Falcons, who came within one win of their second Super Bowl after going 5-11 last season. With Vick at quarterback, the future looks bright.
Philadelphia scored on its second possession after Chris Mohr managed just an 8-yard punt into a stiff wind. The Eagles appeared to go three-and-out, but a holding penalty on rookie cornerback DeAngelo Hall kept the drive alive.
Westbrook broke off a 36-yard run, scooting through a huge hole on the right side and breaking through Brian Scott’s attempted tackle. Dorsey Levens finished it off with a 4-yard touchdown run, appearing to be stopped at the 2 but getting a shove into the end zone from offensive guard Jermane Mayberry.
The Falcons responded by holding the ball for almost nine minutes, also benefiting from a defensive holding penalty on third down that kept the drive alive. But Philadelphia stiffened on first-and-goal from 2, throwing T.J. Duckett for a loss—only the second negative run of the season for the 254-pound back. Atlanta was forced to settle for Jay Feely’s 23-yard field goal.
Back came the Eagles for another touchdown, set up by another big play. McNabb lofted a pass to Greg Lewis, who was covered by undrafted free agent Christian Morton. Lewis slowed up to catch the ball while Morton stumbled out of position, the result being a 45-yard completion to the Atlanta 4.
Two plays later, it was another Lewis, tight end Chad, making a spectacular catch in the corner of the end zone. He somehow managed to drag both feet inbounds after leaping to pull down the high throw. Atlanta challenged, but the replay clearly backed up the refs’ call.
The Falcons followed with their most impressive offensive display. In only five plays, they shredded the Eagles for 70 yards, capped off by Warrick Dunn’s 10-yard touchdown with 2:02 left in the first half.
But Atlanta’s offense never warmed up over the final two quarters.
While the temperature at kickoff was 17, it felt more like zero. A steady 26 mph wind—gusting as high as 35 mph—swept in through the openings on the north end of the stadium.
But the sun and a brilliant blue sky were a striking change from conditions a day earlier. Snow was piled up around the edge of the field, remnants of a blizzard that dumped about a foot of snow and paralyzed much of the East Coast.
The bitter conditions didn’t diminish the mood of the fans, nearly all of whom bundled up in something green. They began gathering in the parking lots— where snow had been plowed into piles higher than their vehicles—just after sunrise to get an early start on the expected celebration.
Leading up to the kickoff, there was another Philly moment.
The “Rocky” theme blared from the speakers, sending the crowd into a towel-waving frenzy. The video board showed clips from the movie interspersed with highlights from the Eagles’ season.
Now, they’ve got a chance to show the biggest highlight of all—a Super Bowl championship.