PHILADELPHIA -- Donovan McNabb took the snap and dropped into his own end zone. No one was open, so he scrambled to his right, scooted past a defender flying through the air and finally stepped out of bounds with a 19-yard gain.
Right away, McNabb made it clear that his right ankle was in good shape -- and the Philadelphia Eagles were in good hands.
McNabb's triumphant return from a broken ankle led Philadelphia past Michael Vick's Atlanta Falcons 20-6 Saturday night, putting the Eagles within a victory of their first Super Bowl in 22 years.
''I always said I could move,'' said McNabb, playing his first game since injuring his right ankle on Nov. 17. ''Everybody else said I couldn't.''
Vick's eye-popping speed and prodigious arm may one day carry him to heights higher than McNabb. Not on this frigid night at the ''Concrete Jungle.''
Crusty ol' Veterans Stadium, occupied by 66,452 towel-waving fans, will hang around for one more game, the NFC championship next Sunday against either Tampa Bay or San Francisco.
The Falcons, who became the first visiting team ever to win a playoff game at Green Bay's Lambeau Field last weekend, couldn't pull off another upset against the Eagles, the NFC's top-seeded team.
''You need to have home games in the playoffs,'' Vick said. ''It's tough to win on the road in the playoffs. The turf was tough, and they seemed to be getting the calls.''
Vick appeared to tie the game up in the third quarter with one of his trademark plays -- a 20-yard touchdown run -- but the play was called back by a holding penalty.
The Falcons missed a field goal and never got another chance against the swarming Eagles defense, which picked off two of Vick's passes -- returning one for a touchdown -- and sacked the elusive quarterback three times.
''When Donovan left, everybody talked about (the defense) having to step up,'' defensive end Hugh Douglas said. ''Now he's back and we're still stepping it up defensively. Donovan is a great player, but we're not too bad on defense.''
Bobby Taylor returned an interception 39 yards for an early touchdown that put the Eagles ahead, and Vick & Co. never caught up.
The game was billed as a matchup between two of the game's shining stars: McNabb, the two-time Pro Bowl quarterback, against the guy he once showed around the Syracuse campus.
McNabb showed right away that his right ankle was OK. On Philadelphia's second offensive play, he broke off the 19-yard run that got the Eagles out of a deep hole, answering any doubts about the state of his ankle.
''I was just trying to make a play,'' McNabb said. ''They did a wonderful job in coverage but left a running lane for me.''
The Falcons, after falling behind 13-0, made a game of it until McNabb sealed the victory with 6:26 remaining.
On fourth-and-1 at the Philadelphia 35, McNabb got some huge blocks up front to hold off the blitzing Falcons and threw to James Thrash, who spun away from Ray Buchanan and raced all the way to the end zone for the only offensive touchdown of the night.
McNabb completed 20 of 30 for 247 yards. He also ran four times for 24 yards.
The 22-year-old Vick, who made the Pro Bowl in his first year as a starter, finished 22 of 38 passing for 274 yards. He also ran for 30 yards on six carries. In the third, Vick turned on his afterburners and appeared to tie the game up for the Falcons.
On second down from the Philly 20, Vick dropped back to pass but found a seam up the middle. He took a vicious hit from Pro Bowl safety Brian Dawkins but ricocheted into the end zone for an apparent TD.
''It was no time to be a hero,'' said Vick, sidelined for one play after having the wind knocked out. ''I was just trying to score a touchdown.''
With both players sprawled on the field, the crowd's groans turned to cheers when they spotted a yellow flag back downfield. A holding penalty against Travis Claridge negated the score; two plays later, Jay Feely missed a 37-yard field goal that seemed to sap some life out of the Falcons.
''I felt they were nitpicking a lot of things,'' Claridge said.
The Philadelphia defense, with four Pro Bowlers, came up huge against one of the NFL's highest-scoring offenses. The Falcons failed to score a touchdown for only the second time all season.
At the end, the field was circled by dozens of police motorcycles, lights blinking. But there was no need to hold off the crowd, which filed out with ''Philadelphia Freedom'' blaring on the loudspeaker. This was merely a preliminary -- nothing less than a trip to the Super Bowl will do for a team that lost in the NFC title game a year ago.
''It was really a gritty win,'' coach Andy Reid said.
Vick made a huge mistake on Atlanta's second possession.
Under pressure from Darwin Walker, Vick failed to spot an open receiver in the middle of the field and tried to hit Shawn Jefferson along the sideline. The ball was badly underthrown and landed right in the arms of Taylor, who sprinted into the end zone. Vick showed he's a better quarterback than a defender, making a weak attempt to corral Taylor at the goal line.
Maybe it was good thing Vick didn't try to make the tackle. The game took a huge toll on the Falcons' defense, which had two key losses in the secondary in the first half.
Free safety Keion Carpenter jammed his neck when making a helmet-on-helmet hit on Duce Staley, a blow so jarring that it knocked Staley back into the end zone. He scrambled out to avoid a safety while Carpenter was crumpled on the turf.
On the first play of the second quarter, cornerback Juran Bolden tumbled while trying to defend Thrash on a deep pass. Thrash made a 42-yard reception, while Bolden was carted off with a torn tendon in his right knee.
The Eagles had the Vet roaring when they built a 13-point lead by early in the second quarter, the product of Taylor's TD and two field goals by David Akers.
But Vick guided the Falcons on a crucial 13-play, 61-yard drive that turned the momentum. Feely hit a 34-yard field goal with 4:10 left in the half.
After forcing a punt, Atlanta got the ball back at its own 21 with 1:49 remaining. Vick ran a couple of times for 20 yards, then hit former Philadelphia receiver Brian Finneran for a 16-yard gain over the middle. On the final play of the half, Feely connected on a 52-yard field goal that brought the Falcons within a touchdown heading to the locker room.
Atlanta couldn't overcome nine penalties for 95 yards.
''It was very frustrating,'' Vick said. ''We can't get any calls. It seems like that's been the story all year.''
McNabb and Vick realized the significance of this game. They are at the head of a new generation of quarterbacks, players who are as likely to break off a long run as they are to throw a deep pass.
The two have been friends since McNabb hosted Vick on a recruiting visit to Syracuse. Vick enjoyed their time together but chose Virginia Tech, not wanting to follow in McNabb's footsteps.
On Saturday night, they went their separate ways again: McNabb to the NFC final, Vick back home to Atlanta.
Notes: The temperature at kickoff was 29 degrees, with a wind chill of 20. ... Since the league went to six playoff teams in each conference in 1990, the NFC has never had a No. 6 seed beat a No. 1 seed. That streak continued Saturday, denying the Falcons a spot in their first NFC title game since the 1998 season. ... Dome-based teams, such as the Falcons, have won only five of 32 playoff games outside. ... The Eagles are 7-3 in playoff games at the Vet.
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