PHILADELPHIA -- The anxiety -- and some of the gnawing fear of a potentially historic failure -- finally began to subside with 11 minutes and 29 seconds left in Sunday's NFC championship game.
Terrell Owens, whose cheerleading credentials were already secure going back to his pom-pom routines with the 49ers, was whipping around a white towel on the Eagles' sideline and the wind-chilled crowd at Lincoln Financial Field followed, predictably, in a frenzy. With 3:21 left, there was a celebration of greater depth: Donovan McNabb had just delivered his second touchdown pass to Chad Lewis and he stood there, alone, on the 15-yard-line pointing to the sky when center Hank Fraley enveloped him with a joyful embrace. When Michael Vick's fourth-down pass fell incomplete with 1:46 remaining, safety Brian Dawkins, arms spread wide, swooped around the field like the free bird he was. And when head coach Andy Reid was ritually doused with Gatorade with 61 seconds left, by Corey Simon and Ike Reese, the sins of the past were officially washed away.
For the first time in 24 seasons, the Philadelphia Eagles are going to the Super Bowl -- XXXIX in Jacksonville, to be precise. After three successive losses in this NFC championship game, the Eagles are winners.
"Vindication! Vindication! Vindication!" shrieked Eagles defensive tackle Hollis Thomas in his curiously high-pitched voice in a remote corner of the locker room. "We goin.' We goin.' "
Linebacker Hugh Douglas, sitting next to him, beamed.
"Relish in the moment, man," he said. "Relish in the moment."
"We came up short the last few years," Thomas said, "and we came through."
He paused and, almost under his breath, added, "Finally."
The drumbeat has been going on all season long; the Eagles' failure on the threshold of the ultimate game has been revisited ad nauseum in Philadelphia: Jan. 27, 2001, Rams 29, Eagles 24; Jan. 19, 2002, Buccaneers 27, Eagles 10; Jan. 18 Panthers 14, Eagles 3. Let the record show that on Jan. 23, 2005, it was Eagles 27, Falcons 10.
"It was great," Reid said after the game, noting that he was going home to spend some time with his family and have at least one cheeseburger. "I think it even makes it more worthwhile that we had to do it four times to get over the hump.
"I'm going to enjoy it tonight, and tomorrow and the next day after that and maybe a couple of days after that."
Actually, considering Philadelphia's breakthrough, the locker room was an oddly sober place. Maybe it's because, even in the third quarter with the Falcons hanging around at 17-10, the Eagles were still in danger of entering that dangerous territory occupied by the 1990-93 Buffalo Bills, who lost four consecutive Super Bowls. Perhaps its because so many Eagles players had so much emotion invested in the process.
There are 13 players on the roster who played in all four NFC championship games. A brief accounting, in alphabetical order, of their contributions:
• David Akers, placekicker: Two field goals, of 31 and 34 yards.
• Mike Bartrum, long snapper: Two successful snaps for the previously noted field goals.
• Dawkins, free safety: One interception and another near-miss.
• Koy Detmer, quarterback: Two clean holds for Akers and, believe it or not, a three-yard completion on an unsuccessful field goal attempt.
• Fraley, center: The middle of the offensive line that allowed the eagles to run the ball 33 times for 156 yards.
• Lewis, tight end: four catches, two for touchdowns.
• McNabb, quarterback: Completed 17 of 26 passes for 180 yards (see above TDs) and no turnovers.
• Freddie Mitchell, wide receiver: two catches for 20 yards.
• Todd Pinkston, wide receiver: one catch for 13 yards.
• Jon Runyan, defensive tackle: Blocked consistently well against the Falcons' Patrick Kerney, who had a relatively quiet day with two tackles and one sack.
• Simon, defensive tackle: two tackles and a pass defensed.
• Tra Thomas, offensive tackle: (See Fraley)
• Darwin Walker, defensive tackle: One tackle.
The point, of course, is that it was a typical team effort by the Eagles. They persevered under circumstances that might have done in a team with less, uh, moxie.
Simon, standing in a blue pin-striped suit in front of his locker, tried to explain what his teammates were feeling.
"I'm just speechless," Simon said. "There's not enough ways to describe the feeling we all have in this locker room. All the guys pulled together. We did what we had to do. Now we have a chance to get a championship."
For weeks, McNabb has insisted that this Philadelphia team was different. He was right. His entire post-game demeanor was a studied cool. Frankly, he said, he was a little disappointed that the shimmering cloud of confetti was released so late after the game ended.
"I was waiting for the confetti to start flying," McNabb said. "They took awhile for that. I didn't get choked up. I didn't cry or anything.
"I think we answered a lot of questions. I think we answered a lot of critics, so maybe people will be happy about the Philadelphia Eagles again -- maybe not. But, as you can see, we're not worried about it."
Dawkins seemed a little less calloused.
"Man, this is -- this is a long, long, long thing that we had to go through," he said. "When I first got in the league (1996), we went to the playoffs and I thought it was going to be an every-year thing and we go straight down hill."
Fraley was asked about going to the Super Bowl.
"I knew I was going this morning. It was just a formality going through the game. Our goal is not to enjoy the Super Bowl. It's to win one."
When a reporter started to ask Pinkston about the frustration of years past, he interrupted the question.
"I don't want to speak about last year," he said firmly. "That was last year."
As the Eagles rolled through the regular season, as McNabb acknowledged, this team did feel different. Balls have bounced fortuitously, like the one Freddie Mitchell reeled in after it ricocheted out of the hands of tight end L.J. Smith last week against the Minnesota Vikings. How about Lewis' nifty touchdown catch that gave the Eagles a 14-3 second-quarter lead? His right toe touched down maybe one-quarter inch inside the white paint bordering the end zone. It might have been less.
"I was trying to keep my feet inbounds," Lewis said. "I thought I felt them touch. When I saw it on the screen, I knew I had it in there.
"We stayed loose, had fun and let our personality show. It feels good."
Greg Garber is a senior writer for ESPN.com.