Crunch time usually when gritty McNabb is most valued

January 12, 2004|By MIKE PRESTON

PHILADELPHIA - Anybody see Rush Limbaugh last night?

Maybe he would have seen what the rest of the league has been seeing for years. The Philadelphia Eagles' Donovan McNabb may not be the prototype for an NFL quarterback, but he can beat a team in so many ways.

McNabb completed 21 of 39 passes for 248 yards and two touchdowns, as well as rushing for 107 yards on 11 carries in the Eagles' 20-17 overtime win against the Green Bay Packers before 67,707 at Lincoln Financial Field in an NFC semifinal.

Not bad for a black quarterback, huh Rush?

With two teams that were fairly evenly matched, McNabb was the difference in a game that reflected his season. He struggled early in the game and was brilliant at the end, even when the Packers put a spy on him.

McNabb made several big plays in the game-tying drive that began late in the third quarter and carried over early into the fourth. He threw a quick dart on a 5-yard pass to tight end Chad Lewis, which helped set up David Akers' game-winning, 31-yard field goal with 10:12 remaining in the 15-minute overtime.

"I'm going to enjoy this one right here, and then we're going to get ready for Carolina," said Eagles coach Andy Reid. "Donovan did a great job - he kept firing. He did it with confidence and conviction and so on. When you keep shooting, great things will happen, and he did that.

"I love watching him, just like you do. He is a great player and they don't come around very often."

McNabb struggled early in the game just as he did early in the season. Philadelphia started the year 0-2 and was 2-3 as McNabb, bothered by a thumb injury, got off to a bad start. Philly fans wanted him benched, and then eventually run out of town. Conservative talk show host Limbaugh weighed in on ESPN, calling him overrated, but that's when the Eagles started a winning streak.

McNabb was the Eagles' Most Valuable Player this season, but they should have given it to Limbaugh.

The Eagles, who had a first-round bye, looked rusty, and McNabb was perhaps the most inconsistent. Twice he threw into double coverage on Philadelphia's opening series.

When he wasn't throwing into coverage, McNabb was often low or behind receivers, like the pass to receiver Todd Pinkston with 7:54 remaining in the first quarter, or the one he skipped to running back Reno Mahe that would have resulted in a crucial first down early in the second.

McNabb was struggling in the first half when he completed only nine of 17 passes for 107 yards. He made one strong throw, a 45-yard pass down the left sideline to Pinkston that eventually resulted in a 7-yard touchdown pass to running back Duce Staley with 6:29 left in the half.

But most of the second half belonged to McNabb. The game-tying drive was eight plays and 89 yards. McNabb had 109 yards on the drive, including penalties. His first big play was a 25-yard pass to tight end L.J. Smith on second-and-20 from the Eagles' 13. His next big play came on a second-and-eight from the Green Bay 36 when he ran up the middle for 24 yards.

The next play was highlight material. McNabb dropped back to pass but was forced up in the pocket. He sidestepped, shook off and eluded defensive end Kabeer Gbaja-Biamila and then outran defensive tackle Cletidus Hunt around the right end. McNabb then drilled a pass to Pinkston in the right corner of the end zone for a 12-yard touchdown that made it 14-14 with 14:48 left in the game.

Packers coach Mike Sherman had run into this problem before. McNabb drives defenses crazy.

"We just wanted to hit him and hit him hard," said Green Bay cornerback Bhawoh Jue. "We tried to just get to him with the pass rush and blitzes. A guy like that you want to get to him before he has time to work his magic. "

Said Sherman: "When the game has been on the line, Donovan has taken off and won the game with his feet. He has been schooled to stay out of harm's way this year, but today he took off and made several big plays."

He made some with his arm, too, none bigger than with 1:12 left in regulation. Facing a fourth-and-26 from the Eagles' 26, McNabb completed a 28-yard pass over the middle to receiver Freddie Mitchell. The pass landed past the outstretched arm of Jue, and just ahead of free safety Darren Sharper.

"I dropped it into the zone, and tried to put it in a position where he could make a play," McNabb said. "It was a great play by Freddie. He showed a lot of heart and determination."

Mitchell gave McNabb all the credit: "He was born to lead. You can't teach heart. Every game, he brings something new to this game. He is huge. To undergo the controversy he has been through this year, and to keep coming up big every time ... wow, this win was for Donovan McNabb."

It has been another strong season for McNabb. He was selected to his fourth straight Pro Bowl after completing 275 of 478 passes for 3,216 yards and 16 touchdowns during the regular season.

It has been redemption, but it won't be complete until he gets to the Super Bowl. The Eagles have lost the past two NFC championship games.

"No question why he is the MVP of this team," said Eagles defensive tackle Corey Simon. "There have been a lot of questions why he is in the Pro Bowl, i.e., Boomer Esiason, but he is respected around the league, and it should be that way."

McNabb said: "This year is the year I think we finally put it all together. I think we have the players and the experience to get it done."

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