Carolina roughs up Eagles, McNabb

Philly's 14-3 loss is third in row in NFC title game

Nfl Conference Championships

January 19, 2004|By Ken Murray | Ken Murray,SUN STAFF

PHILADELPHIA - From the first punishing sack of Donovan McNabb to DeShaun Foster's determined 1-yard touchdown run in the third quarter, the Carolina Panthers roughed up the Philadelphia Eagles on both sides of the ball last night.

Getting four turnovers from their defense and 155 yards from their running game, the Panthers squeezed out a 14-3 victory in the NFC championship game.

Carolina will meet the New England Patriots in Super Bowl XXXVIII at Houston's Reliant Stadium on Feb. 1.

When the pounding finally ended, the heartbreak began for Philadelphia. While Carolina (14-5) heads to its first Super Bowl, the Eagles (13-5) are reeling with their third straight NFC championship game loss. They became the first team in NFL history to lose consecutive championship games at home.

It was effectively over as early as the second quarter, when McNabb, the Eagles' Pro Bowl quarterback, separated his rib cartilage as he was sacked by Mike Rucker and hit by Greg Favors.

With 4:22 left in the first half, Rucker lunged over locker Duce Staley to trip McNabb from behind on a first-down pass play. McNabb landed on the ball, and then Favors rolled him up, believing the play was still alive. There was no flag on the play, however.

From that point on, McNabb completed only four of nine passes for 42 yards and was intercepted three times, including the Eagles' first two possessions of the second half.

He was finally pulled by Eagles coach Andy Reid at the end of the third quarter, and backup Koy Detmer finished the game.

"Donovan was very sore." Reid said. "And Donovan would have continued to play until he passed out. I wasn't going to go to that."

The Panthers' attack-dog defense finished with five sacks, held the Eagles to 2-for-13 on third down and never let Philadelphia's offense get into any rhythm. In the secondary, rookie Ricky Manning Jr. intercepted McNabb three times and defensed five passes.

"The defensive line did a great job of getting pressure and closing down the lanes on McNabb." Rucker said. "We were conscious of where he was. We weren't really crazy with our rush lanes. We didn't just run up field.

"We crushed the pocket and chipped off the tackles to keep him in. He didn't rush very much today [twice for 10 yards], and that was key."

Carolina's secondary was so physical that Eagles receivers couldn't hang onto passes as the game wore on. They had at least six drops in a game when they had only two scoring threats.

Blitzing early and often on defense, the Panthers came in with an ultra-conservative offensive game plan - and made it work because they never turned the ball over.

Quarterback Jake Delhomme threw only 14 passes, completing nine, for 101 yards and a 24-yard touchdown to Muhsin Muhammad in the second quarter.

Most of the night, Stephen Davis and Foster took turns finding the running lanes in Philadelphia's wobbly defense. Despite a strained left quadriceps muscle he injured in last week's victory at St. Louis, Davis carried 19 times for 76 yards.

Foster, quicker and faster, complemented him with 60 yards on 14 carries.

But it was Foster's third-quarter touchdown that perhaps best symbolized the relentless Carolina effort. Manning's third interception had set the Panthers up at the Philadelphia 37. That interception came when safety Mike Minter drilled James Thrash as he caught a pass and lost it. Manning caught the carom.

Three running plays - two by Foster for 17 yards - moved the ball to the 15. A pass interference call in the end zone against cornerback Lito Sheppard gave Carolina first-and-goal at the 1.

The call was a toss right. But the Eagles strung out the play well, and Foster had to bounce off a would-be tackle by Mark Simoneau to keep it alive. Running to his right, he ran into Nate Wayne and Michael Lewis, and still kept pushing. Finally, keeping his feet, he extended his right hand and put the ball into the end zone.

That made it 14-3 and there was little chance the Eagles could get two scores - or even one.

As it turned out, the Eagles never did reach the end zone. They got a second-quarter field goal of 41 yards from David Akers after stalling at the Carolina 23. They had two drives in the red zone - inside the Panthers' 20 - and both ended with interceptions.

The Panthers beat the odds to reach the Super Bowl as a No. 3 seed. They became just the eighth team to reach the Super Bowl with two road playoff wins. The last team to accomplish that feat was the Ravens in 2000.

The last No. 3 seed in the NFC to reach the title game was the Washington Redskins in the 1987 strike season.

"I really haven't had a chance to reflect." said Panthers coach John Fox, who inherited a 1-15 team two years ago. "It's been a great run. It's been a lot of good people that have put a whole lot of hard work into it."

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