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The chess match

Published February 6, 2005

JACKSONVILLE - The Philadelphia Eagles walk in long, cool strides. They wear a beard and, during the week, cornrows. They have a deep voice and an easy laugh.

Tonight, the Eagles wear No. 5.

They answer to the name "Donovan."

He is the Eagles, Donovan McNabb. He is their heart, their head and, most of all, their hope. He is the biggest reason Philadelphia has made it to this Super Bowl, and the only reason it has a chance to succeed in it.

How do you tear down a dynasty? How do you outthink a genius? How do you get your team out of the deep soup known as the New England Patriots?

If you are the Eagles, as always, you turn to McNabb for the answers. Big Five, as they call him in Philadelphia.

"He is their chance," John Lynch, the Broncos safety, said. "For the Eagles to win the game, Donovan has to play well. If he does, the Eagles have a shot. A pretty good shot."

For Philadelphia, this is familiar turf. The Eagles have walked in McNabb's footsteps for a half-dozen seasons now, going as far as he could lead, limping whenever he would stub his toe. Every performance is the same: You can say whatever you wish about the Pips, but if Gladys Knight doesn't sing well, no one is going to like the concert.

Today is no different. Forget about the strategies. Forget about the matchups. It's all about McNabb. Remember when Freddie Mitchell said he had something for Rodney Harrison? He was talking about McNabb.

"Donovan has to play the game of his life," former Redskins quarterback Joe Theismann wrote on ESPN's Web site last week. "I've never seen a Super Bowl where the burden of winning or losing fell so much on the shoulders of one guy."

Part of the reason is the makeup of the Eagles. Yes, Terrell Owens is one of the best receivers in the NFL. Yes, Brian Westbrook looks like an emerging star. Still, this game is on McNabb. Of all the ways you can imagine the Eagles winning, none of them includes McNabb playing poorly.

Then there is the Patriots defense. If there is a weakness, it is the young, injury-depleted secondary. Even though the Patriots smothered a lot of quarterbacks this season, including MVP Peyton Manning three weeks ago, it remains the recommended route in the journey to the end zone. Besides, the Patriots haven't seen a quarterback with McNabb's combination of skills all season.

All of which wraps the game up neatly and places it outside of McNabb's hotel room door. This is his game. This is his time.

"I've been the captain of this ship for six years," McNabb said. "I'm going to lead us where we need to go. I think if I continue to play the way I have, everything will take care of itself. I don't think I have to go out there and be Superman."

No, McNabb doesn't have to pass for 400 yards. He does have to protect the ball, manage the game and make key plays. He has to make good decisions, buy time by moving around the pocket and spread his calm over the huddle. He has to figure out how much to use Seabiscuit (his pet name for Owens) and when to find Waldo (the nickname for the hard-to-locate Westbrook). Once again, he has to be the essential Eagle.

To some quarterbacks, the task of playing against the Patriots' complex defense is daunting. Deep soup, you might say. The Eagles don't seem worried.

"I think he's going to have a huge game," Mitchell said.

"He's going to play very, very well," Westbrook said.

For the record, the Patriots expect that, too. Ask defensive coordinator Romeo Crennel, who was asked which kind of quarterback was most difficult to defend.

"I think a guy wearing No. 5 on a green jersey," Crennel said.

This season, McNabb had the look of a quarterback who has figured out the position. His rating (104.7) is almost 19 points higher than his previous best. He threw for 31 touchdowns with only eight interceptions and, for the first time, hit more than 60 percent of his passes. Ask Westbrook, and he'll say McNabb has never been a better leader, either.

"Donovan McNabb is this era's version of the human highlight film," Patriots coach Bill Belichick said. "We've seen him take off. We've seen him throw 80 yards. We've seen him scramble around and then throw the ball downfield for big plays. He's a tough guy to defend."

What McNabb has not done as often is run with the frequency of the old days. Part of that is age. Part seems to be his insistence not to be thought of as a running quarterback. He ran only 41 times (for 220 yards) this season.

Either way, don't be surprised if he takes off a time or two today as the Patriots drop deep into their zones.

"You have to peel back your ears and be ready to ride," McNabb said. "You have to do whatever it takes to win the game. If it's using your lanes or using your arm. If the defense gives me an opportunity to let the ball go and let the guys work, then that's what I will do. But if they cover down on our guys and leave some running lanes, then I'll run."

Know this: For all the weight on his shoulders, his knees have not buckled. There is a loose, confident air to McNabb. He jokes about being so excited he might run onto the field with the defense and blitz. He seems calm, however, controlled. He talks about being patient so often you expect him to come out throwing short.

Is McNabb tough enough for this? Yeah, he is. He is a man who was booed upon arrival in Philadelphia, and every moment since, he has won over another fan.

"I'm comfortable," he said. "I could see this day coming. I've dreamed about it, and believe me, there is a lot more to the dream. I visualize a lot of big plays being made. I visualize holding up that trophy at the end of the game."

If you can visualize it, you are probably seeing through McNabb's eyes.

In Philadelphia, who else would you expect to see the way?

[Last modified February 6, 2005, 00:23:11]

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