McNabb returns in style, leading Eagles by Falcons

Defense contains Vick to reach NFC final, 20-6

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

PHILADELPHIA - Defense and Donovan McNabb returned to the playoffs last night at Veterans Stadium. Inspired more by their defense than McNabb, the Philadelphia Eagles smothered the Atlanta Falcons, 20-6, to advance to the NFC championship game next week.

McNabb showed the rust of an eight-week hiatus but no ill effects of the right ankle he broke on Nov. 17. On his second offensive play of the night, McNabb rambled 19 yards around the right side to a chorus of cheers at Veterans Stadium.

But it took until deep into the fourth quarter for McNabb and the Eagles to generate an offensive touchdown. That score - a 35-yard pass to wide receiver James Thrash - broke Atlanta's back after the Falcons (10-7-1) stayed in the game most of the way despite numbing temperatures and a wind-chill factor of 20 degrees.

The Eagles (13-4) will face the winner of today's NFC semifinal between the San Francisco 49ers and Tampa Bay Buccaneers in the last game ever at the Vet. They move into a new stadium next season.

The Eagles took few risks with McNabb and rarely threw the ball downfield. Instead, he used high-percentage screens and hitches to get the job done.

The touchdown pass to Thrash came on a fourth-and-one call in which Thrash caught a short toss and then simply ran away from cornerback Ray Buchanan.

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

The Eagles caught a break early in the third quarter when Atlanta's Artie Ulmer roughed punter Lee Johnson. But the Eagles were unable to take advantage and David Akers bounced a 51-yard field-goal attempt off the right upright halfway through the period.

That put the Falcons in position to launch a potential tying touchdown drive. They got the touchdown, but only momentarily. Michael Vick skittered 20 yards on a scramble up the middle of the field and was waylayed by Eagles safety Brian Dawkins.

But the Falcons were guilty of a holding penalty that erased the touchdown. They also lost Vick, who had the wind knocked out of him, for one play.

After backup quarterback Doug Johnson completed a 14-yard pass to Brian Finneran, Vick lost 3 yards on a lateral from Warrick Dunn. It was a series of diminishing returns. Jay Feely then was wide right on a 37-yard field goal.

On the night that McNabb returned to the Eagles' offense, the offense was still utterly dependent on its defense for points. A 39-yard interception return by cornerback Bobby Taylor in the first quarter provided the only touchdown of the first half.

An eight-week sabbatical left McNabb with a strong arm and he completed a 42-yard bomb in the second quarter to Thrash. But the closest the offense got to a touchdown was the Atlanta 16, after McNabb completed passes of 15 and 24 yards. David Akers kicked a 34-yard field goal to make it a 10-0 game.

Even though the Falcons lost two starting defensive backs in the first half, McNabb was never able to capitalize on Atlanta's depleted state.

The Falcons lost free safety Keion Carpenter on their first defensive play when the Baltimore native suffered a jammed neck hitting Duce Staley on a hitch pass at the sideline. He was replaced by Johndale Carty.

Atlanta lost its left cornerback, Juran Bolden, on McNabb's 42-yard pass to Thrash. Bolden went down before the ball arrived and was carted off. Buchanan, who had lost his starting job, took his place.

That series ended with a 39-yard Akers' field goal and 13-0 Eagles' lead.

Vick and the Falcons' offense started slowly, but built up steam by the end of the half when Feely kicked field goals on their last two possessions to cut the deficit to 13-6 at halftime.

Vick's first quarter included the Taylor interception, a fumble the Falcons retained and an intentional grounding penalty when he was chased to the sideline by Hugh Douglas. Contributing to the malaise were four penalties worth 45 yards.

But in the second quarter, Vick rolled left to find a wide-open Quentin McCord for a 23-yard gain. The Falcons crossed midfield for the first time with eight minutes left in the half on an 11-yard run by Dunn.

Philadelphia stiffened in the red zone, however, and Feely kicked a 34-yard field goal.

Two scrambles by Vick generated 20 yards in a 45-yard drive on Atlanta's next series and Feely hit a 52-yard field goal to end the half.

The Falcons finished with more total yards (184-166) and converted six of 10 third downs in the first half. Vick completed 11 of 21 passes for 122 yards, while McNabb hit 10 of 14 for 117.

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