Rookie CB pushes around Eagles WRs

PHILADELPHIA -- Who would have thought that the only Manning to make the Super Bowl was Ricky Jr., not Peyton? Who would have thought that a Panthers team that was 1-15 two years ago would be playing in the Super Bowl?

Against all odds, the Panthers upset the Eagles, 14-3, to win the NFC championship on Sunday night and set up a matchup the Patriots in Super Bowl XXXVIII. They did it with a quarterback named Jake that doesn't have the "Snake" moniker but is every bit as dangerous. They did it with a backup halfback, DeShaun Foster, who is one year removed from microfracture surgery but is strong and powerful enough to break six tackles for a one-yard touchdown run. And they did it with a short rookie cornerback named Ricky Manning Jr. who knew how to exploit the weaknesses of the Eagles receivers.

All week, Manning was saying that the Eagles receivers didn't impress him. Manning, a starter for only 10 games, ended up intercepting three passes, and unlike the Eagles receivers who dropped four passes, Manning held onto the footballs that were thrown by Donovan McNabb.

"Their receivers didn't impress me off the line," said Manning, a third-round pick from UCLA. "I didn't see them as a major threat. If I would come up and bump, I didn't see them as a problem. They didn't seem that fast to me and they didn't seem that physical. I figured if I could get my hands on them and even if I missed, they weren't going to get on by me like some other cats would."

It's been said for the longest time time that the Eagles had a $100-million quarterback and low-end receivers. James Thrash, Todd Pinkston and Freddie Mitchell have been good enough to get the Eagles to three consecutive NFC title games, but they can't break free to make big plays to win these games. The Bucs stuffed them last year in Veterans Stadium, closing out that archaic facility. The Panthers came into brand, spanking new Lincoln Financial Field and pressed the Eagles receivers into submission.

In last year's 27-10 loss to the Bucs, McNabb got more balls to halfback Duce Staley and tight end Chad Lewis than either Thrash or Pinkston. The result was only one touchdown drive. Sunday's effort was even worse. Manning intercepted passes on three possessions in the second and third quarters. Manning was a former baseball player who was good enough to get drafted by the Minnesota Twins.

His two interceptions in the second quarter can be attributed to his guts and aggressiveness. He intercepted one while closely covering Pinkston and another covering Thrash.

"We wanted to be aggressive," Panthers coach John Fox said. "We wanted to be aggressive as far as rushing the passer and wanted to disrupt their receivers in the passing game. I thought our guys executed that well. Sometimes, they had help over the top and sometimes they didn't."

The big play in the game came before Manning's first interception. The Panthers blitzed Mike Minter on a first-and-10 at the Panthers 22-yard line. Defensive end Mike Rucker made an inside move to pressure McNabb. Staley stepped in front to try to save McNabb but he couldn't. Rucker went flying forward but Staley went backward. Falling backward, Staley knocked down McNabb for a sack.

Panthers linebacker Greg Favors delivered the final blow by coming down hard on McNabb, separating rib cartilage on his left side. McNabb was never the same and Reid benched him in the fourth quarter and went with Koy Detmer.

"We knew it was over when he (McNabb) was hurt," Manning said. "That's their leader. That's their man. And once we knocked him out, we exhaled. I thought 'I am definitely going to attack now."'

What was amazing, though, is that the Eagles with longtime secondary stars such as Troy Vincent, Bobby Taylor and Brian Dawkins had to take a back seat to a new, young secondary led by safeties Minter and Deon Grant and cornerbacks Manning, Reggie Howard and Terry Cousin.

"To be honest with you, I knew we were going to the Super Bowl when we drew these guys in the NFC championship," Minter said. "I knew we were going to beat Dallas because the first time this season we didn't play them well. St. Louis, I knew we were going to beat them because they aren't a physical football team. I knew we were going to beat the Eagles because we played them (losing 25-16 Nov. 30) and we didn't play well."

The Panthers brand of football is physical, and their physical offense pounds you with the run. The Panthers came out in a Wishbone in which tight ends Kris Mangum and Jermaine Wiggins are lead blockers for Stephen Davis. They call those alignments Eagles Right and Eagles Left because they can run to either direction.

Davis finished with 76 yards on 19 carries. Foster had 60 on 14 carries, including his sensational touchdown run. A reporter asked if Foster wasn't considered a physical runner. He laughed because he was. "I also can't run on grass either," Foster laughed.

Overall, the Panthers had 40 runs for 155 yards and needed Jake Delhomme to throw only 14 passes, nine completed for 101 yards. His 24-yard touchdown pass came from a formation in which Muhsin Muhammad was the only receiver and caught a Hail Mary-type throw into the end zone despite double coverage.

"They came with a fire zone (blitz) and I was just kind of waiting for Muhsin," Delhomme said. "The safety (Dawkins) kind of overran the play."

"Jake had to earn our trust and he did," Muhammad said. "He was really jacked up for this game and sometimes you cannot understand him when he gets in the huddle with his Cajun accent. He came into the game with a lot of enthusiasm and led us down the field with some great plays."

The Panthers in the Super Bowl? Go figure.

John Clayton is a senior NFL writer for ESPN.com.