John Smallwood: Eagles QB McNabb beats the rap in big win over Dallas

SO DOES yesterday's game qualify as a big game? You know, the kind in which some Eagles fans claim Donovan McNabb never shows up to play.

If your answer is no, then why doesn't it?

This game against the Dallas Cowboys wasn't just do-or-die for the NFC's final wild-card spot.

It was possibly do-or-get-out-of-town for a number of Eagles, starting with McNabb.

Perhaps a loss would not have signaled the end of McNabb's decade as the Eagles' quarterback, but it's certainly less likely to end now that he has led the Birds into the playoffs.

"We couldn't control anything that happened elsewhere, but what we could control was what happened out here today," McNabb said. "And once we got word that there was an opportunity, that a door had been opened, we played with the passion to make sure we took full advantage of it."

The funny thing is that the brilliance of McNabb's performance could easily be lost in the magnificence of the Eagles' 44-6 dismantling of the Cowboys.

His final statistics (12-for-21 for 175 yards) weren't eye-catching, but remember that this was a 3-3 game after the first quarter.

Then McNabb put together a highlight-reel performance that sent the odds-defying Eagles into an improbable playoff game Sunday at Minnesota.

In the second quarter, McNabb completed nine of 13 passes for 139 yards with two touchdowns. He also had a 1-yard touchdown run.

The Eagles went ahead, 27-3, to all but seal the game.

It was the biggest game in which McNabb has played since the Eagles lost the Super Bowl in February 2005.

He showed up.

"Since y'all talk about me not being in the playoffs for the last 4 years, I'm in," said McNabb, who missed the playoffs 2 years ago with a torn ACL. "It's sweet. But you know what, I've got a job to do. My job is to make sure we are ready to go against Minnesota."

After last week's 10-3 choke against Washington, it took a perfect storm of out-of-town results to set things up for the Eagles.

Still, Tampa Bay losing at home to Oakland and Chicago losing in Houston would not have mattered had the Eagles not taken care of the Cowboys.

If ever McNabb was going to display his leadership qualities that so often have been questioned, this had to be that moment.

"They've thrown me out, ran over me, spit on me, but you know what, I continue to prevail," McNabb said, possibly joking or maybe not. "I kept my chin high, staying positive and making sure that the guys in this locker room understand that if given the opportunity we would take full advantage of it; that last week just wasn't us, and if anything worked in our favor with all these scenarios, I would not let them down."

Certainly McNabb has not been perfect during his decade in Philadelphia. There have been times when his play has warranted some of the criticism.

But even on those occasions I've criticized him, I never bought into the argument that he couldn't win big games.

The Eagles went to the playoffs five times, reached four NFC Championship Games and a Super Bowl in McNabb's first six seasons.

The plain truth is that a quarterback has to win a lot of big games along the way to get to those points.

For all the complaints about McNabb coming up short, there have been many more times when the Eagles quarterback has stepped up to the moment.

Of course, when the failures include three NFC Championship Games and a Super Bowl, that argument can easily get lost.

Beating Dallas to reach the playoffs does not equate to winning a Super Bowl, but that doesn't mean it wasn't a big game.

Had the Eagles lost, they would not be one of the 12 remaining teams that have a shot at winning Super Bowl XLIII.

Had McNabb not led the Eagles to the victory over Dallas, it would not matter that he actually set a franchise record with 3,916 passing yards during this up-and-down season.

Had the Eagles lost, the talk about McNabb would be about his dreadful performance against Cincinnati, how he got benched in Baltimore and managed to put up only three points against Washington.

Had the Eagles lost, especially after Tampa Bay and Chicago lost, the talk would be about McNabb again not being able to win the big game - just like those three NFC Championship Games and that Super Bowl.

But the Eagles won. They made the playoffs, and McNabb performed magnificently.

The stature of the game shouldn't change because of that.

It was a big game, and McNabb most definitely showed up. *

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