Sam Donnellon: McNabb's heroics in NFC Championship Game come a little too early

Donovan McNabb fumbles in third quarter. It was recovered by Arizona.

GLENDALE, Ariz. - The ball hit Kevin Curtis in the hands. Maybe Rod Hood clipped his feet, maybe he did not, but the ball hit Curtis on both hands well ahead of the first-down marker, with a lifetime of clock remaining for Donovan McNabb to engineer his second game-winning comeback of yesterday's NFC Championship Game.

That's right, second. Who among us didn't think, the way the entire second half had gone, that McNabb already had engineered one of the greatest come-from-behind championship game victories in history? Two hundred sixty six yards passing in the second half. Three touchdowns. Sticking balls into tight coverage, sticking balls to second and third reads, taking full-running hits from defensive backs, rallying the Eagles from 18 points behind and into a 25-24 lead early in the fourth quarter?

Who among us does not believe that had Curtis caught that ball, the feeling in these precincts would be much different this morning? Or had the defense not lost its panache on that last Cardinals drive - and for the entire first half - that McNabb would be this city's best story since Game 5 of the World Series?

Who among us now, even the biggest of bashers, does not now concede the subtle point he made at the start of this improbable late-season run, that "I'm asked to win the game every week."

I'll say it again: I thought it was his ego then. It was, I now believe, the latest call for help during his rocky marriage here, a defense maybe of his play prior to his infamous benching. Anyway, he issued a variation of it after last night's loss when asked whether the Eagles built something for the future with this late-season run.

"I guess I've been building for 10 years,'' he said. "I can't sit and say anything about the building aspects of things."

Except that . . . he just did.

"Each year is an opportunity to add more weapons," he said. "And add more guys who can contribute."

In midseason, one of those places seemed to be quarterback. At the end, it seems about the last place to start. The Eagles added DeSean Jackson this season. It was huge. He outfought rookie Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie for the go-ahead score, tipping the ball twice before reeling it in. Imagine if McNabb had three of those guys the way Kurt Warner did yesterday, or even a second.

Jason Avant has made some tough catches down the stretch. But he's hardly a weapon. Yesterday second-year tight end Brent Celek looked like a weapon to be used more often in the future, catching 10 passes, many in traffic. He was a late-season find, for sure, but not trading for Tony Gonzalez when the opportunity was there still sticks in your craw, and likely sticks in McNabb's, too.

Even if he is the real deal, Kevin Kolb will not make Greg Lewis a better receiver or make a bonafide fullback magically appear on the roster. He will not make Reggie Brown try harder, or at least enough to avoid repeated deactivations, as was the case again yesterday.

Remember when Reid touted Brown as a No.1?


Curtis is usually better than that, although he did have a costly drop against the Giants last week as well. But there was nothing surprising about Lewis comically corkscrewing himself into a long-distance first-half drop.

This is McNabb's cast. He's careful with his words, coy sometimes, and he has never singled out a teammate. As Avant, who has become his locker-room lawyer, pointed out yesterday, he's taken most of the blame , even vitriol, with unnerving evenness.

"He's a stronger man than I am,'' Avant said. "I might fire back once in a while.''

The closest he came yesterday was the plea for help, and his contention that what happened at the end of this latest NFC Championship Game loss was deja vu.

"We've been a part of that five, six times, whatever times I've been here,'' he said of the Cardinals' winning drive.

Like much of what he says, it's part true, part not. He's had a big hand in some of those four Championship Game losses, as has been recounted ad nauseum.

He had a couple of weapons then too, a guy who ate up Asante Samuel in the Super Bowl like Larry Fitzgerald did yesterday, a healthier version of Brian Westbrook than the one that gimped through the Arizona game.

The McNabb who showed up yesterday would have won that game, would have won a few of those NFC Championship Games too. Yesterday's McNabb, arguably, played his best big game yet. Passing for 375 yards, passing his team from a 24-6 deficit, on the road, to a fourth-quarter lead. He seemed to have won the game once, and might have won it a second time had fate and fickle hands not intervened.

He's certainly won himself another look, and maybe a little love. The owner wants him back. Will he pony up more guaranteed money and more years? The coach, asked if he felt for McNabb after the loss, said, "I feel for all the guys.''

Maybe he was just being politically correct. Or maybe Donovan's best Championship Game performance in an Eagles uniform will be his last one. Either way, it shapes up as a helluva offseason. *

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