10 years later, recalling Eagles' last Super Bowl appearance

PHOENIX - Rodney Harrison remembers watching the Eagles hooping and hollering before Super Bowl XXXIX and thinking that the first-timers would be gassed in the Jacksonville, Fla., humidity by the fourth quarter.

"I remember pregame warm-ups, they're coming out and you see Brian Dawkins and all those guys and all the energy," Harrison said. "You see them jumping around hitting each other, and we're just kind of laid back, chilling, [saying], 'Look at these fools over there. They're going to wear themselves out.'

"And you saw Donovan [McNabb] throwing up. You saw a team that was really overexcited to play."

McNabb, for the XXIX,000th time - and counting - said last week that he did not vomit in the 2005 Super Bowl against the Patriots. And for the record, the former Eagles quarterback said his team wasn't gassed, even though it didn't go up-tempo trailing by 10 points late in the fourth quarter.

"It's funny because there's nothing else to talk about except for me throwing up - which I never threw up in the Super Bowl," McNabb said. "And the unfortunate part of it is you got former players still talking about it. I've heard Lito [Sheppard] say something. I've heard Jon Ritchie bring it up.

"Look, if you feel like I did that, just watch the game and see if I did. I didn't."

The did-he or didn't-he controversy, unfortunately, has overshadowed a game that pitted two teams at their peaks. The Andy Reid-coached Eagles had finally reached the title game after losing in the NFC championship game the three previous seasons. And the Bill Belichick- and Tom Brady-led Patriots were trying to win their third Lombardi Trophy in four years.

New England prevailed, 24-21, and on the 10th anniversary of that game it's a wonder to think that Belichick and Brady have yet to win another despite two more appearances. They'll get another chance at Super Bowl No. 4 when they face the Seahawks on Sunday.

The Eagles, of course, never returned, and that game remains the high-water mark of that era. And for many fans and some Eagles, the most frustrating part was failing to capitalize in the first half and then lacking any sense of urgency on the fourth-quarter drive that had Belichick looking at the scoreboard and whimsically asking his father on the sideline if the Patriots were trailing.

"I'm looking at Teddy Bruschi and I'm like, 'What the heck are they doing? Why aren't they going hurry-up offense?' " Harrison recalled last week. "He said, 'Rodney, it's the dumbest thing I've ever seen.' "

McNabb, who was here all week hosting his radio show and fulfilling his Fox TV duties, said the Eagles weren't tired and pointed out that the drive led to a touchdown. He hit receiver Greg Lewis for a 30-yard touchdown with 1 minute, 48 seconds left to narrow the margin to three.

"Our defense held," McNabb said. "We had time to go down and score and win the game. We just didn't capitalize. Everybody was like, 'You should have been in two-minute, hurry-up.' Well, it wasn't the hurry-up we're traditionally doing, and we're interchanging guys.

"We could have scored a little faster, but we scored and we had time."

Some of the Patriots, though, insist the Eagles were spent.

"We had them punch-drunk and they were discombobulated," former Patriots linebacker Willie McGinest said. "That's why they couldn't get it together."

A day after the game, Eagles center Hank Fraley went on Comcast Sportsnet and said that McNabb "was almost puking in the huddle." Receivers Freddie Mitchell and Terrell Owens would later claim that McNabb had puked, but the quarterback and many others in the huddle said that he was coughing or gasping after taking a hit to the back from Bruschi.

"That stuff got blown way out of proportion," Fraley said recently. "I have a lot of respect for McNabb. I was with him for six years. That stuff's in the past, but it keeps getting brought up nowadays and it should never."

McNabb completed 30 of 51 passes for 357 yards and three touchdowns. But he also tossed three interceptions and has always taken responsibility for those turnovers. He said he still regrets that he didn't play his best game.

"You look back on it as a player - would you like to have had a couple of plays back? Absolutely," McNabb said. "I think every losing quarterback would love to."

After they opened the game with two three-and-outs, the Eagles advanced into the Patriots' red zone late in the first quarter. But when McNabb went to running back Brian Westbook through the air, Harrison intercepted him near the goal line.

The Patriots' offense sputtered early on, too, as Jim Johnson's attacking defense confounded Brady and company. New England netted only 22 yards on its first four drive and fumbled after it moved to the 4-yard on its fifth drive.

But when Brady hit receiver David Givens for a 4-yard touchdown before the half, the score was knotted, 7-7.

The Patriots came out of the half a different team with a different offensive gameplan. Josh McDaniels was the Patriots quarterbacks coach then. He said he remembered then-offensive coordinator Charlie Weis re-scripting plays during the break.

"Charlie put in some things that we hadn't even practiced, but he felt based on the way they were playing us we got to do some of these things," said McDaniels, now the Patriots' OC. "We put a script on the board and basically said [to the players], 'Hey, this is what we're going to do in the third quarter.'"

"I remember using four wide in the second half, and I'm going, 'Four wide? What the heck are we talking about?'"

The Patriots went to the air and were able to protect Brady even against Johnson's blitz packages. And the quarterback kept hitting Deion Branch, who finished the game with 11 catches for 133 yards.

New England scored points on three of their first four drives of the second half and led, 24-14, with just under nine minutes remaining in the fourth.

On the Eagles' ensuing drive, though, McNabb hit Owens for 36 yards to the Patriots 36. Owens missed all of the playoffs after breaking his leg in December. He played in the Super Bowl even though doctors advised against it, and caught nine passes for 122 yards.

Eagles defensive end N.D. Kalu, who had missed the season with a torn ACL, said he couldn't believe what he saw watching from the sidelines.

"I was amazed at what T.O. was able to do," Kalu said. "After he broke his leg he said, 'I'll be ready for the Super Bowl,' and I remember thinking, 'I have faith, but I just don't see how he can come back.' But the way he came back and the way he competed, that's the lasting impression I have from that game."

On the next play, however, McNabb threw high to Dorsey Levens out of the backfield and was picked off by Bruschi. Johnson's defense held after the turnover, but when the Eagles got the ball back with 5:40 left they stayed at their normal offensive pace and huddled.

"You want them to go faster. You're helpless. You're waiting for the defense to have its opportunity," former Eagles linebacker Dhani Jones said. "But you're going through your mind thinking how many plays you should have stopped for the score to be different because you don't want to be in that situation."

A botched exchange between McNabb and Fraley forced the quarterback to pounce on a loose ball, but McNabb took a shot to the back from Bruschi. The clock kept ticking as the FOX broadcast crew questioned the slow pace.

"They look like they're worn out," Chris Collinsworth said on the air.

But McNabb kept completing passes and finally connected with Lewis in the end zone. The Eagles held again on defense, but when they got the ball back on their own 4-yard line there was only 46 seconds to go.

And then on third down with 17 seconds left, McNabb's pass over the middle caromed off tight end L.J. Smith hands and to Harrison for his second interception.

"I just got lucky," Harrison said. "I got a tip and was able to hold onto it and seal the victory."

The Eagles' missed opportunities or Reid's decisions were dissected with a fine-tooth comb for months after the game, but the Patriots just seemed to make the plays when it counted most.

"I'll say this and I'm sure it's not the popular thought: They were just the better team," Kalu said. "Even watching from the sideline, rooting for my team, it just felt like they always had an answer to what we were doing. They felt like they were supposed to be there. They didn't get too up or too down throughout the game."

When it was revealed years later that Belichick had videotaped the defensive signals of the New York Jets during a 2007 game, and there was speculation that he had been engaging in the practice for years, some stated that the Patriots' Super Bowl wins were tainted.

Kurt Warner, who as the Rams quarterback lost to the Patriots in 2002, said last week that he still had a "sliver of doubt."

"It's easy to say now," McNabb said. "I don't look at it in the sense like, 'They took my Super Bowl.' Maybe that's something you say with the fellas. But that didn't cost us the game because you still got to line up. You got to execute plays."

With business still to tend to, Brady and Belichick were not inclined to look back and reminisce. They returned to the Super Bowl after the 2007 and 2011 seasons, but lost both to the New York Gaints. They have another shot at No. 4.

"It's a great feeling, I remember that," Brady said. "I remember the after-party. That was fun. . . . It's hard to do. It's hard to get to this game."

The Eagles know. McNabb was injured for most of the next season and the team became divided amid Owens' contract demands. The Eagles returned to the conference championship game in 2008, but came up short against the Cardinals. Dawkins left via free agency after the season, McNabb was traded a year later, and Reid was fired in 2012.

The franchise's best sustained period in the Super Bowl era was over, and the 2005 loss still lingers.

"It was heartbreaking. It sits with you because you got so close to being world champs," said Fraley, who was traded after the 2005 season. "I still haven't ever watched the game."

jmclane@phillynews.com

@Jeff_McLane