PHILADELPHIA – If the loss to Tampa Bay in the 2002 NFC Championship Game was arguably the worst loss in Philadelphia Eagles history, their next title game was just plain ugly.
The Eagles were appearing in their third consecutive NFC Championship Game and second at home. This one would be played in Lincoln Financial Field, the team’s new stadium. The opponent was an unremarkable Carolina Panthers team, quarterbacked by Jake Delhomme.
The game was played on Jan. 18, 2004, exactly 11 years before this weekend’s conference title games. The Eagles used to make regular appearances in these games. Lately, not so much.
By this third appearance, the Eagles were feeling the pressure a little bit. They were tight, and it showed in their performance. Defensive backs Brian Dawkins and Bobby Taylor stood helplessly in the end zone as Delhomme’s off-balance heave came down into the arms of Muhsin Mohammad for a 24-yard touchdown. Donovan McNabb, who threw a pick-six late in the previous year’s title game against Tampa Bay, delivered his worst postseason performance against the Panthers.
The shame of it was that it had taken a near miracle for the Eagles even to be in this game. The week before, they had fallen behind early to the Green Bay Packers, 14-0. They came back, but were trailing 17-14 with just more than two minutes left in regulation. McNabb took a 16-yard loss on a sack and threw two incompletions, giving the Eagles a desperate fourth-and-26 play at their own 26-yard line.
McNabb found Freddie Mitchell down the middle for 28 yards. The Eagles drove to a tying field goal that sent the game into overtime. Safety Brian Dawkins intercepted a Brett Favre pass to set up the game-winning field goal for the Eagles. After all that, it seemed as if the Eagles would have some momentum going into the game against Carolina.
But once again, obvious weaknesses caught up to the Eagles in the big game. A year earlier, it was their platoon at middle linebacker, exposed when Joe Jurevicius burned Barry Gardner on a 71-yard catch-and-run. This time, it was the Eagles’ mediocre wide receiving corps.
Panthers cornerback Danieal Manning Jr. intercepted McNabb three times. On the third, McNabb threw the ball right to wide receiver James Thrash. The ball was knocked loose and Manning caught it. Todd Pinkston, the other starting wide receiver, seemed incapable of getting off the line of scrimmage cleanly against the Panthers defense.
Meanwhile, McNabb took a physical beating. He was sacked five times. Late in the first half, McNabb was knocked onto his back, his legs sticking up into the air. Panthers linebacker Greg Favors threw himself across the prone body of McNabb, injuring his ribs. McNabb stayed in the game, but never got things going.
Carolina won, 14-3.
The loss had real consequences. Shaken by three consecutive championship game defeats, the Eagles went out and acquired wide receiver Terrell Owens and defensive end Jevon Kearse, arguably the top available offensive and defensive players that offseason.
After three years of same-old, same-old, things were about to change.