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Destiny denied

Carolina defense smothers Philly to earn first NFC title

Posted: Monday, January 19, 2004

PHILADELPHIA Sorry, Eagles. Not this time, either. The surprising Carolina Panthers are Super Bowl-bound instead.

The Panthers once again showed no fear on the road, shocking Philadelphia 14-3 Sunday night and handing the Eagles their third straight NFC championship game defeat.

Rookie Ricky Manning Jr., a hero last week with an interception to set up the winning touchdown at St. Louis, picked off three passes against an ailing Donovan McNabb.

Eight days after ending the Rams' 14-game home winning streak in double overtime, the Panthers marched into The Linc and grabbed their first conference crown. They'd gotten this far in 1996, their second season, but lost to Green Bay. This time, they extended the angst-filled wait for a championship in Philadelphia and will head to Houston to meet the New England Patriots on Feb. 1.

The Patriots beat Indianapolis 24-14 earlier Sunday for the AFC title.

''I'm going to try not to think about the Patriots tonight so I can at least get some sleep,'' quarterback Jake Delhommme said. ''I don't want to think about that defense just yet.''

For Philadelphia, it is now 20 full seasons without any kind of pro sports championship. The Eagles' last NFL title was in 1960, and they are the first team to host consecutive conference championships and lose both since game sites originally were determined by record in 1975.

Just two seasons back, the Panthers were the NFL's worst team with a 1-15 record. John Fox was hired as coach and engineered one of the most impressive turnarounds in league history. They beat Dallas handily at home in the wild-card round, then won the thriller at the Rams.

Fox's opportunistic defense made the difference Sunday, led by a fierce pass rush and third-round draft pick Manning, who tied an NFC championship game record with his three pickoffs. The Panthers hurt McNabb's ribs in the second quarter, then destroyed Philadelphia's chance for its first Super Bowl trip since 1981 with a powerful display in the third period.

By the final quarter, McNabb was out of the game and the Eagles were out of options.

With McNabb sidelined, Koy Detmer led the Eagles to the Carolina 11, but then forced a throw over the middle that Dan Morgan grabbed for the Panthers' fourth interception.

Overall, McNabb was just 10-for-22 for 100 yards. He could provide none of the heroics of last week, when he rallied the Eagles over Green Bay 20-17 in overtime. This decisive loss will erase the glory of ''fourth-and-26,'' the play that saved Philadelphia's season for one week.

The Panthers' key offensive player, Stephen Davis, played regularly despite injuring his quadriceps last week. He had 76 yards on 19 carries, while Foster added 60 on 14.

Carolina barely needed Delhomme's passing and he was a mere 9-for-14 for 101 yards.

''The defense played lights out,'' Delhomme said.

Manning's third interception off a deflection when receiver James Thrash was hit hard by Mike Minter and his 17-yard return was critical. So was the inability of the Eagles' secondary to make the same kind of plays.

Lito Sheppard's 14-yard interference penalty against Steve Smith put Carolina at the 1. DeShaun Foster then powered through four tacklers for a 14-3 lead with 4:11 left in the third quarter.

In the first half, despite double coverage, Muhsin Muhammad made a 24-yard touchdown catch for a 7-0 lead.

Davis showed he was healthy enough on the opening series, running for 26 yards. But the drive died at the Philadelphia 32 and John Kasay, rather than attempt a long field goal in the swirling winds, pooched a punt to the 11.

Philadelphia also had an impressive first drive, including consecutive completions of 12 yards to L.J. Lewis and 23 to Correll Buckhalter. The threat ended when McNabb was sacked by Will Weatherspoon at the Panthers 36, forcing a punt.

Early in the second quarter, Carolina found the end zone with a little good fortune. On a third-and-1, Foster fumbled, but teammate Jermaine Wiggins pounced on it for a 2-yard gain.

After a 21-yard pass to Davis and a 15-yarder to Muhammad, Delhomme's heave into the end zone was well short of Muhammad. But the receiver came back for the ball against passive double coverage for the score.

Unfazed, Philadelphia marched to the Carolina 23, where McNabb tripped going back to pass and was sacked by Mike Rucker. Shaken with a rib injury, he left the game for one play, then returned to complete a 10-yard pass to Mitchell that originally was ruled a drop.

But after coach Andy Reid's successful replay challenge, David Akers kicked a 41-yard field goal for the Eagles' only points.

Manning picked off McNabb's poor pass with 47 seconds remaining in the first half, which ended 7-3. The Panthers had four sacks by then and finished with five.

Manning's second interception was even more significant. He stepped in front of Todd Pinkston on a third down from the Carolina 18 and McNabb threw the ball directly to him. Manning celebrated with an Ali Shuffle.

He'd deliver the knockout punch a little later and had three interceptions in 9:39.

CarMuhammad 24 pass from Delhomme (Kasay kick), 10:12.

PhiFG Akers 41, 2:56.

Third Quarter

CarFoster 1 run (Kasay kick), 4:11.

A65,158.

Car Phi

First downs 14 18

Total NetYards 256 289

Rushes-yards 40-155 26-137

Passing 101 152

Punt Returns 0-0 2-14

Kickoff Returns 2-57 3-62

Interceptions Ret. 4-13 0-0

Comp-Att-Int 9-14-0 17-36-4

Sacked-Yards Lost 0-0 5-36

Punts 8-38.3 4-36.8

Fumbles-Lost 1-0 1-0

Penalties-Yards 5-35 4-34

Time ofPossession 30:11 29:49

INDIVIDUAL STATISTICS

RUSHINGCarolina, Davis 19-76, Foster 14-60, Delhomme 4-7, Muhammad 1-5, Smart 1-5, Hoover 1-2. Philadelphia, Staley 13-79, Buckhalter 11-48, McNabb 2-10.

PASSINGCarolina, Delhomme 9-14-0-101. Philadelphia, McNabb 10-22-3-100, Detmer 7-14-1-88.

RECEIVINGCarolina, S.Smith 3-26, Muhammad 2-39, Davis 1-21, Foster 1-6, Hoover 1-6, Goings 1-3. Philadelphia, C.Lewis 4-69, Mitchell 4-38, Staley 4-33, Buckhalter 2-26, L.J.Smith 1-12, Thrash 1-9, Ritchie 1-1.

MISSED FIELD GOALSNone.



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