CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- For a 16-team grouping that has coughed and hiccupped its way through much of this season, the maligned NFC on Sunday finally spit out a couple of franchises that might be viable Super Bowl contenders.
That the Philadelphia Eagles are one of those teams, along with the St. Louis Rams, will be a surprise to anyone who witnessed their early-season shortcomings and then went to live in a cave or overseas the past two months. But compliments of a 25-16 victory over the fading Carolina Panthers here on Sunday afternoon -- the Eagles' seventh straight win and eighth in nine outings -- there is no reason to believe Philadelphia won't make a third consecutive appearance in the NFC championship game on Jan. 18.
If they get there, the Eagles could well face St. Louis, to whom they lost in the 2001 NFC title matchup, and a team whose start to this season was nearly as inauspicious as Philadelphia's.
By keeping things simple and relying on the three R's -- resilience, resourcefulness and Reid -- the Eagles have overcome their dismal 0-2 start. Given the manner in which they are now steamrolling through the schedule, having won contests in virtually every manner imaginable, Philadelphia also seems primed to overcome past failures in the NFC championship game.
"It's not for me to say if we're the team to beat (in the NFC)," said Eagles defensive end Brandon Whiting, who absolutely owned Carolina standout rookie right offensive tackle Jordan Gross, while authoring one of the game's biggest plays. "But I know that, the way we're playing right now, we're going to be a very tough 'out.' We've definitely got the confidence back, that's for sure, and we're doing whatever it takes. The only thing that we look at now is the scoreboard. And it's been looking pretty good."
Pretty good, indeed, even if the Eagles aren't always pretty, as far as their overall execution is concerned.
The victory over the Panthers, who have now lost two straight games and are teetering on the brink of disaster, was typical of Philadelphia's formula of late. In lifting their record to 9-3, keeping pace with St. Louis for the best mark in the conference, the Eagles were neither precise nor aesthetically resplendent. But they did enough things well, and got an ample assist from uncharacteristically scatter-footed Panthers kicker John Kasay, to re-establish themselves among the league's elite.
Only two teams, Kansas City and New England, now have more wins than do the Eagles. And after trailing the Dallas Cowboys for much of the season in the NFC East, the Eagles suddenly own a one-game advantage in the division on the eve of next Sunday's meeting at Lincoln Financial Field.
Heading into the December stretch run there is no hotter franchise, or arguably one more widely feared, than this surging Eagles outfit.
Said Carolina wide receiver Muhsin Muhammad: "I guess the politically correct thing to say is that, yeah, I'd like another shot at them. But they're so red-hot right now, it seems that a lot of things are going their way, and they're probably the best overall club (in the NFC) heading into December. They've gotten hot when you want most to get hot. I don't know what turned it around for them, really, but they are back to being the Eagles of the last couple seasons again."
Good teams have a way of squeaking through the door if the portal is open just a crack. Within but a minute of falling to 2-4 and with quarterback Donovan McNabb in the throes of a deep slump, the Eagles sprinted through the door of opportunity and gained new life.
Since the season-salvaging punt return, Philadelphia has barely slowed down, with the Eagles resolutely clawing their way back to the top perch in the conference.
"When a lot of people started digging our grave," said wide receiver James Trash, "we just started digging deep. Period. We kind of (dispelled) all the doubters. But we've got to keep playing with this same urgency. I mean, there are no guarantees, you know?"
Maybe not but, with this streak, the Eagles look like a pretty sure bet in the conference championship game to test the ol' theory that the third time is a charm. Certainly they are leading a charmed life, attributable to their own tenacity, and also to the frequent faux pas of their weekly opponents.
On Sunday, the Eagles trailed in nearly every offensive category: first downs (19-17), snaps (60-57), total yards (336-283) and time of possession (30:06-29:54). Yet after Duce Staley's two-yard touchdown run in the first quarter staked Philadelphia to a 7-3 lead, it never trailed again. McNabb completed passes to nine different teammates, yet none of his wide receivers had more than three catches, and it didn't seem to matter.
Thirty-seven of Carolina's 60 snaps came on the Philadelphia side of the 50-yard line and 13 of those were in the "red zone" but, typical of the Eagles' resilience (and of the fatal ineptitude of the Panthers offense and kicking game), the defense surrendered just a pair of touchdowns. It helped, too, that Kasay missed three field goals and an extra point try.
Carolina reached the Philadelphia two-, eight-, 14-, 20-, 23-, 24- and 31-yard lines at various junctures. But they squandered too many chances and, the ones that they didn't waste, were taken away from them by the Eagles defense. No play was bigger than that made by Whiting, who stuffed Panthers powerful tailback Stephen Davis for no gain as Carolina ran inside on fourth-and-one from the Philadelphia eight-yard line just before the end of the first half.
Referee Walt Coleman originally signaled a first down, but the Eagles players wisely requested a measurement, and the savvy move paid off. When the chains were stretched, the Panthers were a couple inches shy.
"We had an 'out' call, which means we were all supposed to slant to the outside, because we felt they wouldn't test us up the middle," Whiting said. "But when I saw a guard pull, I had a feeling where the play was going, and I played the hunch right. Davis seemed to have a lot of momentum, but I was able to get on him, and just knock him sideways. And when they brought the chains out, yeah, you could see just a little daylight between the ball and the stick. It felt great, man, really great."
Once again, the Eagles offense was more resourceful than great, with coach Andy Reid's tailback triad combining for 118 rushing yards, 158 yards from scrimmage and 258 all-purpose yards. It is a testament to Reid, who gets very little mention for coach of the year honors but should merit strong consideration if his team continues to win, that the offense has done as much as it has with so few notable playmakers.
Opponents continue to insist, somewhat justifiably, that Philadelphia has few offensive players who truly scare anyone. But here is the scary part about the Eagles: Because the estimable Reid never panicked, and his team was able to tread water for so many weeks when the roster resembled a M*A*S*H unit, things could go swimmingly for the Eagles now that so many standout players are getting healthy again.
They are peaking at a time when the roster, with stars like free safety Brian Dawkins and cornerback Bobby Taylor nearing full rehabilitation, is regaining peak strength. That is hardly good news for the four teams remaining on the Eagles schedule and the teams that Philly likely will meet in the postseason.
As much as Eagles players attempted to avoid all discussion of a third trip to the conference championship game, it was hard not to conjure up visions of another chance to earn a Super Bowl berth, especially for those veterans who failed the first two times.
"All I'm going to say," said strongside linebacker Carlos Emmons, "is that the chemistry in here right now is tremendous. There's a lot of business to tend to before we get a shot at taking care of that unfinished business still hanging out there for us. But, yeah, we're starting to like our chances."