PHILADELPHIA -- It is now time to reveal the official loose cannon of the National Football League playoffs -- the Philadelphia Eagles.
This is a team with a quarterback who has rushed for 828 yards, a running back who has thrown three touchdown passes and a cantankerous coach who remains unsigned and unrepentant. The Eagles are a highly volatile mixture of ability and unpredictability. Good enough to plunder the New York Giants. Bad enough to lose to the Indianapolis Colts. But come January, these carnival performers in cleats could create playoff mayhem in a tight-rope walk to the Super Bowl.
"Teams are afraid of us," safety Andre Waters said. "We're like a rattlesnake. We lay in the grass. Sometimes, we'll bite. Sometimes, we won't. We're a team that can go on a roll."
Yesterday, the Eagles qualified as a wild-card team for the National Football Conference playoffs by destroying the Green Bay Packers, 31-0, at Veterans Stadium. The victory broke the Eagles' two-game losing streak, gave them an 8-6 record and completed their turnaround from a 2-4 start. On the horizon is a likely playoff matchup against the Washington Redskins.
The game against the Packers contained the now-standard Randall Cunningham play for the ages, the Keith Byars touchdown pass and the usual defensive intimidation that has made Philadelphia the league's most engrossing team. The shutout was the Eagles' first since Thanksgiving Day 1989 in Dallas, and their first at home since 1981. But keep in mind, even though Philadelphia now has qualified for the playoffs three straight years -- matching the San Francisco 49ers -- it has yet to win a playoff game during Buddy Ryan's five-season reign as coach.
Ryan, whose contract expires at the end of the season, is steadfast in his belief that the Eagles are a Super Bowl challenger. Even when the team was 2-4, he all but guaranteed the Eagles would emerge as a playoff team.
"This is the best football team we've had," he said. "The main thing is to get there [the playoffs] and get there healthy. Last year, we got there and everyone was bitching because we lost. But Randall was the only one who was healthy. Two years ago, our wideouts were hurt."
The Eagles promise this year will be different. No more fold-ups against the Los Angeles Rams, or fog-bound defeats against the Chicago Bears. All along, the talk has been the Super Bowl or bust.
"I know we can win it all," Waters said. "We're the most dangerous team out there. The 49ers, you could see it in their eyes the last two years, that they wanted it. But you don't see that this year."
The Eagles displayed their brand of pre-playoff fury against the beleaguered Packers (6-8). The good news for Green Bay was that quarterback Dan Majkowski decided wisely to undergo shoulder surgery Thursday, rather than chance an appearance against the Eagles. The bad news was that Majkowski's substitutes, Anthony Dilweg and Blair Kiel, were compelled to run for cover while producing 158 total offensive yards.
Eagles defensive end Reggie White abused second-year tackle Tony Mandarich, and the rest of the Packers' line caved in. Dilweg was the major casualty, forced to leave the game late in the first half with an injured arch.
"We came in here to establish ourselves defensively," White said. "Around the playoffs, you have to turn it up a notch. This is the time when defenses win games."
The Eagles' offense was splendid. Cunningham completed 13 of 27 passes for for 241 yards and one touchdown. He also ran four times for 56 yards and one touchdown -- a spectacular 17-yard, fourth-quarter scramble that ended when he lifted off at the 3 and soared into the end zone over Green Bay cornerback Mark Lee.
A day earlier, Buffalo's Jim Kelly and the New York Giants' Phil Simms suffered freak injuries while standing in the pocket. Cunningham defies football law, dares to soar and bids to become pro football's first 1,000-yard rushing quarterback.
"I don't think about getting hurt," Cunningham said. "The pocket is a dangerous place. I just go on instinct."
Completing this circus act was Byars, the running back who rarely runs. He merely completed his third touchdown pass of the season -- 8 yards to Andrew Toney in the first quarter -- and caught a 12-yard Cunningham touchdown pass in the fourth quarter. Not a bad day's work on the road to the playoffs.
"Home or away, we really don't care where we have to play in the playoffs," Byars said. "The field is 100 yards and has two goal posts, whether we're playing in Washington or Philadelphia. Personally, I'd play in a cow pasture. Or a parking lot."
Green Bay 0 0 0 0 0
Philadelphia 7 10 0 14 31
PhiToney 8 pass from Byars (Ruzek kick), 13:15.
PhiFG Ruzek 34, 11:53.
PhiByars 12 pass from Cunningham (Ruzek kick), 14:16.
PhiCunningham 17 run (Ruzek kick), 4:00.
PhiSanders 1 run (Ruzek kick), 11:00.
RUSHING--Green Bay, Haddix 7-31, Query 1-18, Thompson 6-9, Kiel 1-4, Woodside 1-0, Fontenot 1-(minus 7). Philadelphia, Sanders 17-66, Cunningham 4-56, Vick 4-24, Toney 9-19, Byars 1-6, Williams 1-2.
PASSING--Green Bay, Dilweg 6-15-0-74, Kiel 8-18-1-67. Philadelphia, Cunningham 13-27-0-241, McMahon 1-1-0-8, Byars 1-1-0-8.
RECEIVING--Green Bay, Query 4-41, Woodside 4-31, Sharpe 2-25, Fontenot 2-20, Weathers 1-15, Kemp 1-9. Philadelphia, Barnett 5-108, Keith Jackson 3-67, Shuler 2-30, Byars 2-26, Williams 1-10, Sanders 1-8, Toney 1-8.
MISSED FIELD GOALS--Green Bay, Jacke 47. Philadelphia, Ruzek 22, 37.