Turns out the Eagles didn't need Terrell Owens. Nor most of the rest of the offense, the defense, or even the coaching staff, for that matter. On a day when a fragile team and a twitchy town braced for a gut check, it was the Vikings who showed up with no stomach for the rigors of the playoffs and only a little more heart.
Quarterback Donovan McNabb wasted no time in marching Philadelphia to the end zone on three of its first four possessions against a Minnesota defense that played down to its ranking, 28th in the NFL.
The Eagles defense, meanwhile, manhandled a Vikings offense so discombobulated that its attempt at a fake field goal early in the second quarter only wound up faking out its own players and coaches. By then it was 21-7, and the outcome was never really in doubt.
''We kind of had a chip on our shoulder,'' Eagles tight end L.J. Smith said. ''We listen. We try not to listen too hard, but we couldn't keep from hearing all those questions about how we were going to move on without T.O.
''Well you saw what happened. Freddie Mitchell stepped up, Brian Westbrook stepped up, Greg Lewis stepped up. We found a way to get it done.''
McNabb's name should have been the first on that list, since the burden of replacing Owens' catches fell most squarely on him. Rather than try to do too much, however, the sixth-year veteran spread the ball around to seven different receivers, ran only three times and suffered just a single sack.
The Eagles get Atlanta back in their place next Sunday for the NFC Conference final, and based on the way Michael Vick and the Falcons' pinball offense rang up points on the Rams on Saturday, McNabb will have to be even more productive and just as mistake-free.
Yet when someone asked whether he was ready to up the ante, McNabb simply smiled.
''I don't have any room for added pressure on my shoulders.''
While talk radio crackled all week in Philly over Andy Reid's decision to play his reserves the last two games of the regular season, the coach remained calm at the center of the storm. And after pocketing the 27-14 win, he couldn't resist a little ''I-told-you-so'' for all the critics who filled up the airwaves.
''I wasn't too worried,'' he said. ''I trust the guys would keep themselves in shape. They handled the time off very well, the way a mature football team does.''
While precious few fans in football's toughest town were prepared to take Reid's word for it, most of the rest learned this was going to be the Eagles' day just two minutes into the second quarter.
That's when McNabb hit Smith on a crossing pattern at the Minnesota 4, and Vikings corner Antoine Winfield's crunching tackle sent the ball flying on a lazy end-over-end loop toward the end zone and there to meet it was Mitchell. He was actually setting up to block for Smith, but instead he stopped, leaned down and wrapped up the loose ball before it hit the ground, as though a fireman had just tossed him a baby.
Reid offered a perfectly reasonable explanation for that stroke of good luck, saying it's what happens when a team commits to getting players around the ball and in position to make blocks. But Mitchell was more succinct, not to mention a lot funnier.
''I'd just like to thank my hands,'' he said, ''for being so great.''
Good hands, though, weren't the only attribute Mitchell brought to the fore in Owens' absence. Keeping alive T.O.'s tradition of answering every opponent's dance with a dance of his own, Mitchell made a diving 2-yard TD catch on Philadelphia's second drive, scrambled back to his feet, and in a fitting counterpoint to the Vikings' Randy Moss' fake moon a week earlier, pretended to pull his own pants back up and cinch his belt.
''What did he do? Reid said afterward with mock horror. ''No, don't tell me. ... I'm not sure I'd be able to put up with him if he'd scored a third TD.''
Minnesota coach Mike Tice would have been happy to deal with that problem, except Moss didn't score even once and only caught three balls all afternoon. Still, that didn't stop the man with one of the league's longest rap sheets and the Chia Pet mane from calling attention to himself.
Moss was supposed to be the intended receiver on the Vikings' botched fake field goal. But after sauntering over to the sideline in a decoy move, he realized a Minnesota lineman had stayed on the field, making Moss potentially the 12th man. After stepping off and back on the field, he crossed the sideline a final time as Tice tried in vain to call time out. Gus Frerotte, the holder on the play, then took the snap, whirled to where Moss was supposed to be and panicked, and wound up throwing it away. By then, Moss had already taken a seat on the heated bench with his head thrown back, eyes closed.
''It's unfortunate,'' Tice said. ''I think we left a good little seven (points) right there.''
If so, that was about the only thing the Vikings left out on the field.
The Eagles, on the other hand, had better have plenty in reserve. After three straight failures, they advance to the NFC Championship game for a fourth time and will play in front of a crowd aching for a Super Bowl championship. No city with four pro sports teams has suffered as long as the die-hards in Philly have 22 years without a league title and they won't go gently into one more losing night.
''We are confident and loose,'' Westbrook said. ''We don't have any reason not to be loose.''
So long as they leave the radio dialed to easy listening music all week.
Jim Litke is a national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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