McNabb's return, defense lift Eagles over Falcons, 20-6

QB is rusty but mobile, `D' contains Vick to reach second straight NFC final

January 12, 2003|By Ken Murray | Ken Murray,SUN STAFF

PHILADELPHIA -- Defense and Donovan McNabb returned to the playoffs last night at Veterans Stadium. But it was more defense than quarterback that propelled the Philadelphia Eagles past the Atlanta Falcons, 20-6, and into the NFC championship game next week.

McNabb showed the rust of an eight-week hiatus, but no ill effects, from the broken ankle he suffered Nov. 17. On his second offensive play of the night, he rambled 19 yards around the right side to a chorus of cheers from the crowd of 66,452.

But it took until deep into the fourth quarter before McNabb generated an offensive touchdown. That score -- a short hitch that James Thrash turned into a 35-yard touchdown -- finally broke the Falcons' back.

The Eagles (13-4) will meet the winner of today's other NFC semifinal, between the San Francisco 49ers and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, in the last game ever at the Vet next Sunday in a 3 p.m. kickoff.

It's the second straight season the Eagles advanced to the conference championship game. Last season, they lost to the St. Louis Rams.

"The way I look at it, obviously we're excited, but it's unfinished business," McNabb said afterward. "This is an opportunity to take another step forward."

Last night, the big chill froze out both offenses. Playing in a wind chill of 20 degrees, neither team was able to sustain much offense. The Eagles took few risks with McNabb and rarely threw deep. Instead, McNabb used high-percentage screens and hitches to get the job done.

He completed 20 of 30 throws for 247 yards, but ran sparingly (four times for 24 yards).

The touchdown pass to Thrash came on fourth down after the Falcons (10-7-1) had two shots at a tying touchdown in the second half. On fourth-and-one against an Atlanta blitz, Thrash grabbed a short pass in front of cornerback Ray Buchanan and simply ran away from him.

That capped a 75-yard, 10-play drive, the Eagles' only sustained offense of the night.

Their defense gave the Eagles an early lead when cornerback Bobby Taylor intercepted Atlanta quarterback Michael Vick and returned it 39 yards for the longest touchdown return of his eight-year NFL career.

Vick threw two interceptions in the game, but handled the elements well. He completed 22 of 38 throws for 274 yards, and ran six times for 30 yards.

"It's tough to lose the way we lost today, but you have to suck it up," Vick said. "Give them a lot of credit. They came out and did what they had to do. Unfortunately, we weren't able to capitalize on certain situations, and that's part of the game."

Atlanta actually outgained the Eagles (354-318) and converted seven of 15 third downs, but ultimately lost a game of attrition.

The Falcons lost two defensive starters in the first quarter -- free safety Keion Carpenter and cornerback Juran Bolden. Carpenter, a Baltimore native who played at Woodlawn, jammed his neck on the Falcons' first defensive play of the night.

Bolden suffered a lower leg injury defending on a 42-yard pass to Thrash early in the second quarter. Neither player returned.

Even against Atlanta's depleted secondary, the Eagles were hard-pressed to threaten. They got a pair of first-half field goals from David Akers.

Akers capped a 47-yard drive to the Atlanta 16 with a 34-yard field goal in the first quarter. He finished off a 65-yard drive with a 39-yard kick in the second quarter.

That gave the Eagles a 13-0 lead they never relinquished.

Vick struggled at the outset, but he gained confidence and momentum as the game went on. In addition to the Taylor interception, Vick also fumbled the ball when hit from behind and was flagged for intentional grounding when chased to the sideline by Hugh Douglas in the first quarter.

He settled down and directed two field-goal drives in the second quarter, though, to cut the deficit to 13-6 at halftime. The Falcons didn't cross midfield until eight minutes before halftime. Jay Feely's 34- and 52-yard field goals closed the team's last two drives of the half.

Atlanta pressed the Eagles into the fourth quarter before relenting. The Falcons actually got a tying touchdown -- but only momentarily -- after Akers bounced a 51-yard field-goal attempt off the right upright in the third quarter.

Vick's 20-yard touchdown run was wiped out by a holding penalty. The Falcons also lost Vick, who had the wind knocked out of him on a hit by Eagles' safety Brian Dawkins, for one play. Dawkins also was forced to the sideline after the play.

Atlanta got as close as the Eagles' 16, but came away empty-handed when Feely was wide right on a 37-yard field-goal try.

NFL playoffs

Yesterday's results

Pittsburgh at Tennessee

Atlanta at Philadelphia Today's games

San Francisco (11-6) at Tampa Bay (12-4), 1 p.m. TV: 45, 5. Line: Tampa by 6.

N.Y. Jets (10-7) at Oakland (11-5), 4:30 p.m. TV: 13, 9. Line: Oak. by 5 1/2 .

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