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'It does hurt,' McNabb says of season unfulfilled

In seeking a Super Bowl slot for the first time since '81, players bemoan disappointing a city as well as themselves.

By KEVIN KELLY, Times Staff Writer

© St. Petersburg Times, published January 20, 2003

PHILADELPHIA -- Chad Lewis' voice cracked and then drifted to silence.

"They came in here," the Eagles tight end whispered, "and stole it."

By virtue of an ugly 27-10 loss to the Bucs in the NFC Championship Game on Sunday, the Eagles didn't just disappoint themselves.

They disappointed a town in search of a title since running back Wilbert Montgomery carried the Eagles to their only Super Bowl in 1981. And in a stadium notorious for its cats, rats, roaches and losing ways since the Eagles began playing there in 1971, they ended an era somewhat appropriately.

"It does hurt," quarterback Donovan McNabb said. "This being the last game here at the Vet, we wanted to make it special."

A handful of players watched last year as the Rams celebrated their NFC Championship win against Philadelphia, but all were motivated to return the team to the championship game.

"This team has unbelievable chemistry," Lewis said. "We fight. We won't give up. We stick together no matter what happens.

"I wish that we could showcase that next week."

Despite a few setbacks, namely the broken right ankle sustained by McNabb on Nov. 17, Philadelphia did reach its goal of returning to the NFC Championship Game.

The team turned to backup Koy Detmer when McNabb broke his ankle. And when Detmer was injured in a Monday night game against the 49ers on Nov. 25, another backup, A.J. Feeley, took over seamlessly.

Philadelphia finished 5-1 without McNabb, 12-4 overall and had homefield advantage throughout the playoffs.

"Halfway through, we did not know where we were going to be," cornerback Troy Vincent said. "Once Donovan went down, the guys rallied and Koy came in and A.J. stepped in and we continued to have success."

It continued when McNabb came back for the NFC divisional playoff game against the Falcons, a 20-6 win.

"With everything that happened this year," McNabb said, "we thought we were destined to get to this spot."

But the Eagles managed to do little against the Bucs, whom they had beaten four consecutive times entering Sunday.

The offense never found a rhythm on the ground or through the air.

Running back Duce Staley had 58 yards on 13 carries. McNabb fumbled twice, had an interception returned 92 yards by Ronde Barber for a touchdown and threw too many incomplete passes in the second half.

The defense, which led the NFL with 56 sacks during the regular season and ranked fourth overall, failed to nab Bucs quarterback Brad Johnson. Tampa Bay's shifting offense confused a secondary that boasted three Pro Bowl players yet allowed a 71-yard pass play by wide receiver Joe Jurevicius.

"There's not a whole lot you can say," head coach Andy Reid said. "We battled like crazy this year. They played very hard. It's my responsibility for us to perform better in this game. We didn't get that part done."

Returning to the NFC Championship Game next year undoubtedly will be tough but not impossible. Green Bay is the last team to reach the game in three consecutive years, doing so from 1995 to '97.

"Guys are going to be disappointed," Reid said. "When you go into a football game, and I stress this in the beginning (of the season), you do everything possible to win that football game.

"You should feel disappointed at the end. When you get to this one you also better understand that you've come this far. There's not a lot of teams that are sitting in this position. ... As much as you're down, you come back with another opportunity next year."

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