NFC: EAGLES 20, FALCONS 6: If Tampa Bay can get past the 49ers, it faces an Eagles defense that has made a bold statement.
By KEVIN KELLY, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times, published January 12, 2003
PHILADELPHIA -- He returned just in time.
After missing eight weeks with a broken ankle, Eagles quarterback Donovan McNabb answered any questions about his health and competency Saturday.
In an NFC divisional playoff game hyped as McNabb versus Falcons quarterback Michael Vick, the Eagles rode the arm, not the legs, of McNabb to a 20-6 win before 66,452 at Veterans Stadium.
"He was his old self today," Eagles coach Andy Reid said. "It was good to see. I didn't think he was going to be rusty. I thought he'd come out and do exactly what he did."
On fourth and 1 with the Falcons within a touchdown of winning, McNabb completed a short pass to receiver James Thrash, who took it 35 yards to give the Eagles their first offensive touchdown with 6:26 left in the game.
The score provided Philadelphia with a comfortable 14-point lead.
The Eagles advanced to the NFC Championship Game Jan. 19 but must wait until after today's Tampa Bay-San Francisco game to learn if it will have a chance to oust the Bucs from the playoffs for the third consecutive season.
An added bonus: Whoever wins today will participate in the final game at the Vet with a trip to the Super Bowl on the line.
"I think that would be a tough game," Eagles linebacker Levon Kirkland said of a possible matchup with the Bucs. "I think Tampa would come in here determined, but we have to be determined. We have to have a need to go to the Super Bowl."
Vick wasn't able to get rolling as he did last weekend in ousting the Packers from the playoffs 27-7. Though the 20-degree temperatures gave it a similar feel, a sign hung along a railing in the lower level of the stadium warned, "You're not in Lambeau Field anymore." And Vick appeared overwhelmed initially by the Eagles' defensive pressure and coverage.
Pro Bowl cornerback Bobby Taylor intercepted Vick and returned it 39 yards for a 7-0 lead with 7:58 left in the first quarter. Defensive tackles Corey Simon and Brandon Whiting each sacked Vick in the first half.
Any questions about McNabb's health or mobility in his first game since breaking a right ankle Nov. 17 were answered on Philadelphia's first drive. The second-leading rushing quarterback in the league, trailing only Vick in the regular season, McNabb scrambled for 19 yards and dodged several Falcons along the way.
But he hurt Atlanta most in the first half through the air.
Not only did passing plays result in Atlanta defensive backs Keion Carpenter and Juran Bolden being carted off with neck and knee injuries, McNabb completed passes of 15, 24 and 42 yards.
To Atlanta's credit the Eagles offense relied on a pair of field goals by David Akers to extend their lead to 13-0.
Falcons kicker Jay Feely made a 34-yard field goal to make it 13-3 with 4:10 remaining in the half and added a 52-yarder as time expired to cut the Eagles' lead to seven.
In the third quarter Akers missed a 51-yarder on the Eagles' second drive. Feely followed that with a 37-yard miss that would have pulled the Falcons to within four points.
Vick had the breath knocked out of him on a run that nearly was a touchdown that could have tied the score, but it was called back because of a holding penalty with 3:48 left in the third quarter.
"You need to have home games in the playoffs," Vick said. "It's tough to win on the road in the playoffs."
Philadelphia is 3-0 all-time against the Bucs in the playoffs and has eliminated Tampa Bay the past two seasons by a combined 52-12. The Eagles also have won five straight against the Bucs at Veterans Stadium.
In their only meeting this season, a 20-10 Tampa Bay loss at Philadelphia, the Bucs offense was held scoreless with 207 total yards, and quarterback Brad Johnson was sacked five times. That loss marked the third consecutive game in Philadelphia in which the Eagles didn't allow Tampa Bay to score an offensive touchdown.