The Eagles’ last voyage to the NFC championship game nine years ago wasn’t the 13-3 pleasure cruise that this one has been.
It didn’t include any of the swell perks earned by this year’s team. There was no first-round bye. There was no home-field advantage.
The Eagles were lucky to even make the playoffs in 2008. They finished 9-6-1 and needed the improbable Week 17 help of two other teams just to get the sixth and final NFC invitation.
This year’s Eagles lost their quarterback to injury in Week 14. The ’08 Eagles benched theirs in Week 12 after an awful 8-for-18, three-turnover first half by Donovan McNabb in a 36-7 loss to Baltimore.
If you had suggested at that point that the Eagles would reach the NFC championship game, you would have been laughed out of town.
“We were 5-5-1, we were beat up, we had some injuries, but we were resilient,’’ said Brian Westbrook, who scored 14 rushing and receiving touchdowns that season.
“We had resolve. And we weren’t quitters. We continued to fight. I think it benefited us in the playoffs in those hard-fought games, like the one against the Giants. We knew how to find a way to win.’’
McNabb’s demotion turned out to be temporary. He was back behind center four days later, throwing four touchdown passes at the Linc in a 48-20 win over the Arizona Cardinals.
It was the first of three straight victories that resuscitated the Eagles’ playoff hopes. But a 10-3 loss to the Redskins in Week 16 put them back on life support.
They went into the final week of the regular season needing not only a win over Dallas but also a loss by Tampa Bay, which was playing a 4-11 Oakland team that had to fly across the country for a meaningless game, and a loss by Chicago or Minnesota.
The Bucs, Bears, and Vikings all were playing in the early games. The Eagles’ game was a 4 o’clock start.
“I remember I was back in [trainer Rick Burkholder’s] office watching the games the whole time,’’ said Jon Runyan, the right tackle on that team. “You weren’t really expecting it to happen because of all the other scenarios. But, hey, this is football. Anything can happen. And it did.’’
Indeed it did. The Vikings beat the Giants, but both the Bears and Bucs lost. Raiders running back Michael Bush rushed for 177 yards and two touchdowns against the Bucs, including a 67-yarder with seven minutes left in the fourth quarter to put the Raiders ahead for good.
“I remember we were toasting Michael Bush later for finding a way to score and win that game,’’ Westbrook said.
The Eagles still had to beat the Cowboys, but that didn’t turn out to be very difficult. They won, 44-6.
“Everything we needed to happen happened,’’ Westbrook said. “Then we went out and crushed the Cowboys. Our defense went out and went crazy.
“Offensively, we did some good things, but Dawk [safety Brian Dawkins] was all over the field. Interceptions, fumbles. Our defense was so good during those years that it could keep us in the game until we could find our legs on offense.’’
On to the postseason
The Eagles’ wild-card-round game was at Minnesota, which had had won the NFC North with a 10-6 record. Jim Johnson’s defense struggled to stop Adrian Peterson in the first half, but it shut him down in the second half, holding him to 14 yards on eight carries.
Asante Samuel had a 44-yard interception return for a touchdown in the second quarter that put the Eagles up, 16-7. Samuel and the defense held quarterback Tarvaris Jackson to 15 completions in 35 attempts and no touchdowns.
The Eagles were clinging to a two-point lead with six minutes left in the fourth quarter when Westbrook took a screen pass from McNabb and went 71 yards for a touchdown.
“On that screen pass – and I said the same thing about that punt return in the Meadowlands – it’s rare where you have all 11 guys doing the right thing,’’ Westbrook said, referring to his 84-yard touchdown with 1:16 left that lifted the Eagles over the Giants. “That screen pass was one of those plays where all 11 guys were doing the absolute right thing and we were able to find a way to get into the end zone.’’
The win set up a divisional-round battle with the Giants in the Meadowlands. The Giants were the NFC’s No. 1 seed. They won the NFC East with a 12-4 record.
The teams had split their two regular-season faceoffs. The Giants won by five at the Linc in Week 10, and the Eagles won by six in the Meadowlands in Week 14.
The game was played in challenging conditions – 20-25-mph winds and a 17-degree wind chill.
The wind and the Eagles’ defense wreaked havoc with Eli Manning’s passes and confidence. He was 15 for 29 for just 169 yards, with no touchdown passes and two costly interceptions, including one early in the game — by yep, Samuel again, who returned it 25 yards to the New York 2-yard line — that the Eagles converted into a touchdown.
Much like the week before, the game stayed close well into the second half. Then McNabb engineered a 10-play, 63-yard drive that ended with his hitting second-year tight end Brent Celek for a 1-yard score on the first play of the fourth quarter.
The Giants had four fourth-quarter possessions, but Dawkins and the Eagles’ defense never let them advance farther than midfield. David Akers added his third field goal of the game with four minutes left.
Different venue, different result
That set up a rematch in the NFC championship game with a Cardinals team the Eagles had beaten by 28 points seven weeks earlier. Eagles fans were giddy with delight. They thought a second trip to the Super Bowl in five years was a foregone conclusion.
But this game was in Arizona, not South Philly. The Cardinals had been awful on the road that season, losing five of eight regular-season games, including the Thanksgiving night fiasco against the Eagles. But they were 6-2 at University of Phoenix Stadium, and also had beaten Atlanta at home in the wild-card round.
“They had been very, very good at home that year,’’ Westbrook said. “On the road, they had struggled. You saw that on Thanksgiving.
“We knew we were going to be facing a very good defense at home. They had the ability to rush the quarterback. The offense had Kurt Warner and Larry Fitzgerald. They had the ability to score points. We knew it wasn’t going to be a repeat of Thanksgiving.’’
He was right. Led by Dawkins, Johnson’s defense had given up the fourth-fewest points in the league that season. The Eagles had held nine of its 16 regular-season opponents to 14 points or fewer, and had held its first two playoff opponents to a combined 25.
But the Cardinals came out hot. Warner completed 14 of 17 first-half passes for 203 yards and three touchdowns, all to Fitzgerald, who had 113 receiving yards by halftime. The stunned Eagles went into the locker room trailing, 24-6.
“We knew that, in order to control the game, we had to control the ball,’’ Westbrook said. “Unfortunately, because of what happened on Thanksgiving, they kind of knew what we were going to do. They had a great game plan defensively.
“There weren’t very many rushing yards to be had. And we had to find a way to make plays in the passing game. We had a couple of dropped balls and a couple of situations where we didn’t get the ball to the receiver on time. Things like that. Because of that, we struggled. Especially in the first half.
“Before we knew it, they were up big. We were like, ‘What just happened?’ We found a way to fight back and make it interesting. But it seemed like we were fighting an uphill battle the whole game.’’
The Eagles rallied in the second half. The defense found a way to slow Warner and Fitzgerald, and the offense started to move the ball and score points. McNabb connected with Celek, who finished with 10 catches, on a pair of third-quarter touchdown passes that closed the gap to five, 24-19. Then, four minutes into the fourth quarter, DeSean Jackson caught a 62-yard touchdown pass from McNabb to put the Eagles ahead, 25-24.
But Warner and the Cardinals weren’t done. The future Hall of Famer engineered a 14-play, 72-yard scoring drive that chewed up nearly eight minutes. His 8-yard TD pass to rookie running back Tim Hightower and a two-point conversion put Arizona up by seven with less than three minutes to go.
“We were hoping the defense had a stop in them,’’ Westbrook said. “But they couldn’t get off the field. Our defense had saved our butt all season long. But Warner pushed all the right buttons on that drive.’’
Even after the Cardinals went back ahead, the Eagles still had time to come back. McNabb and Westbrook connected for 19 yards, giving the Eagles a first down at the Arizona 47 with 2:09 left.
But it would be the Eagles quarterback’s last completion of the game. Their Super Bowl hopes would die on a fourth-and-10 incompletion to wide receiver Kevin Curtis, who was on his knees as the ball whistled through his hands.
“When it was over, I was devastated,’’ Celek said. “We had come so far. We were one game away [from the Super Bowl].
“That was just my second year, so I’m thinking there will be other opportunities. But they don’t come along very often.’’
The Eagles would qualify for the playoffs each of the next two years, but that loss to Arizona essentially marked the end of an era. It was the final game in an Eagles uniform for Dawkins and Runyan, who had worn midnight green for a combined 22 seasons.
Westbrook would play one more year for the Eagles, but he was injured much of 2009 and carried the ball just 61 times. McNabb was traded after the ’09 season.
Two weeks after the Arizona loss, the team announced that Johnson had a recurrence of melanoma that had spread to his spine. He died six months later.
“The window only stays open for so long,’’ Westbrook said. “We had a nice run. But that year took a lot out of us. We lost a lot of people who made us special for so long.’’
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