Eagles', Pats' futures forged in tumultuous afternoon
Posted: Monday January 24, 2005 1:48AM; Updated: Monday January 24, 2005 1:05PM
Donovan McNabb is a long way removed from the last time he faced the Patriots.
Ezra Shaw/Getty Images
PHILADELPHIA -- "Too bad about the Steelers,'' the governor of Pennsylvania, Ed Rendell, was saying on the phone Sunday night. "A shame. A real shame. It would have been two really fun weeks for the people here.''
That's OK, guv. This looks like a great, and very topical, Super Bowl anyway. Call it The Acela Super Bowl. Nothing fluky about it. The Patriots beat two premier teams in the playoffs by a combined 31 points to get here. The Eagles' cumulative margin of victory over a fair (Minnesota) and good (Atlanta) team was 30. But make no mistake about it: These are the two best teams in the NFL. You might get an argument from Pittsburghers, but they have no cause for it after getting a gift against the Jets and giving up 41 to New England.
"It's going to be a great game," Freddie Mitchell told me last night. He's the Philly slot receiver. "[New England's] team is what we want to be -- consistently great, winning championships. They're not a commercial team. Not a lot of famous guys on their team. They just win.''
Remember the last time these two teams met? Very controversial day for both. Seems like such a long time ago.
Sunday, Sept. 14, 2003. Second game in Lincoln Financial Field history. Each team was 0-1, and each had fallen to 0-1 in rather humiliating fashion. The Patriots got shut out in Buffalo 31-0, just four days after whacking very popular defensive captain Lawyer Milloy because he wouldn't take a major pay cut. The Eagles had been shut out by Tampa Bay 17-0 in the Linc's first game ever.
Two memorable pronouncements were made Sept. 14. The Patriots were in their Philadelphia hotel rooms -- kickoff wasn't until 4 p.m. ET -- when the first one was uttered. ESPN football analyst Tom Jackson looked straight into the camera and said the New England players hated coach Bill Belichick. Because Jackson is such a respected voice in football, and because ESPN is such a media power, the statement made the rounds among the Patriots by the time everyone got to the stadium that day. Whatever has been said in the intervening time about the New England players just shrugging their shoulders over Jackson's statement is a bunch of bunk. Many in the organization were stunned, and Belichick was really surprised. You have to remember that, at that time, Belichick was embattled after cutting Milloy. Whispers about a rerun of Belichick's Cleveland days were circulating around the media.
Since that morning New England has gone 33-3.
That afternoon, as the Patriots were finishing a 31-10 whipping of the Eagles, dropping Philly to a barely-with-a-pulse 0-2, a chant rose up from the crowd. The fans wanted A.J. Feeley to play quarterback instead of Donovan McNabb. "Of all the things you could possibly do as a fan,'' Mitchell told me last week, "chanting for A.J. to play over Donovan was about the dumbest." But that's what the fans were doing, and McNabb and the falling Eagles just had to sit there and take it -- with their bye week ahead, meaning they had to stew about their 0-2 record even longer.
Since that evening Philadelphia is 28-6.
Three conference titles among the two franchises over the past two years, and a combined record of 51-9 since those Waterloo moments. All in all, they're the two best teams in football over the past two seasons -- two Swiss-watch-run organizations with excellence from the top on down. Eagles owner Jeff Lurie, a Bostonian, once tried to buy the New England franchise and is good friends with the Kraft family, who now own the Patriots. Both Lurie and Bob Kraft learned the hard way that the best approach to running a football team when you really don't know football is to get a masterful coach on the premises and let him run the show. That's what Lurie did with Andy Reid in 1999, helped by business-wise GM Joe Banner. And that's what Kraft did with Belichick in 2000, helped by football-wise director of player personnel Scott Pioli.
Postscript to both story lines from 16 months ago: Belichick was so ticked off by the Jackson comment that he stopped talking to ESPN. The only individual ESPN interviews he's done since, I believe, are with Chris Berman, an old friend. And last year when Berman got him to do a sit-down the night of the Super Bowl, Belichick walked onto the ESPN set and greeted Jackson's outstretched congratulatory hand with a bitter blast.
McNabb had a bad throwing thumb at the time of the 2003 meeting with the Pats, which was part of the reason he was stinking up the joint. All he's done since is have his best regular season ever, and take this star-crossed team to its first Super Bowl since the Dick Vermeil days.
The Patriots will try to pound Corey Dillon. McNabb will move Brian Westbrook everywhere and try to get him to make plays in the open field. But the New England defense is as disciplined as a unit can be. Philly's defense is second in that category. I think it's going to be a great game, without many mistakes. The only bad thing is we have the silly two-week gap before the game.
The Fine Fifteen
Seems crazy, but the team that beat New England by 14 and Philadelphia by 24 in midseason falls to No. 3 entering Super Bowlmania ... all because its quarterback fell to earth with a thud in the last nine days.
Peter King will answer your questions each week in Monday Morning Quarterback: Tuesday Edition.
1. New England (16-2). Last three AFC championship game appearances: 3-0, with 14 takeaways.
2. Philadelphia (15-3). There is something so right about the Eagles getting to the Super Bowl, for the fans and for this team. Not to mention the fact that there would have been a jumpers' line at the Ben Franklin Bridge this morning if they didn't.
3. Pittsburgh (16-2). Do not retire, Jerome Bettis. You have another 200-carry season in that 258-pound body.
4. Atlanta (12-6). The Falcons were really confident entering this game. But let's not let the loss take away from a better season than anyone had a right to expect from the Birds.
5. Indianapolis (13-5). Please, Bill Polian. Legions of Colts fans would rather have you spend money on importing guts than keeping Edgerrin James.
6. New York Jets (11-7). I like Mike. Heimerdinger. Really bright. I worry, though, about how the New York Post and Daily News will fit his name on their back pages when the Jets offense slumps. 'DINGER, perhaps.
7. San Diego (12-5). Donnie Edwards, please enjoy the offseason. You've gotten some of the due you've long-deserved -- and next year there will be more.
8. St. Louis (9-9). I hope some special-teams changes are percolating.
9. Green Bay (10-7). It's 50-50 whether the AFC Championship Game or the Golf Channel was on in Brett Favre's Mississippi home last night.
10. Minnesota (9-9). Did you notice that A Man Very Close To The Situation, Cris Carter, said a few days ago he thought Randy Moss had played his last game for the Vikings? One other Vikings expatriate note: I expect Chris Hovan, currently getting run out of town, will emerge in free agency to be in the defensive tackle rotation with Dennis Green in Arizona.
11. Denver (10-7). Ashley Lelie might be on his way to being the Broncos' kind of player.
12. Baltimore (9-7). I bet Moss would like to go somewhere else than here. I don't think he wants to be under Ray Lewis' thumb.
13. New Orleans (8-8). 32-32 since 2001.
14. Carolina (7-9). Hey, Muhsin Muhammad. You're doing good work on the NFL Network.
15. Buffalo (9-7). I know I'm partial, but I think Jim McNally did a heck of a job with that previously underachieving offensive line this season.
The Awards Section
Offensive Player of the Week
New England quarterback Tom Brady. Not for the numbers (14-21, 207 yards, two touchdowns, no picks), but for his incredible knack for always playing well in the biggest games ... and for never, ever boneheading the Patriots out of an important drive.
Defensive Player of the Week
(tie) Philadelphia defensive ends Derrick Burgess and Jevon Kearse, who played superbly, limiting Michael Vick to four carries for 26 yards and totally neutering him as a threat in this game. Playing a masterful game of contain football, Burgess and Kearse switched positions so the quicker Kearse could control Vick's left-end rollouts. They combined for three sacks (31 yards lost), eight tackles and one pass batted down.
Special Teams Player of the Week
Philadelphia punter Dirk Johnson. On one of the worst weather days for a punter, the gusts up to 35 mph didn't make a mouse out of Johnson. He had punts of 39, 36 and, into the wind, 40 yards.
Coach of the Week
Philadelphia defensive coordinator Jim Johnson. (Not Jimmy, for all you Super Bowl-coverers. It's Jim.) The Eagles hemmed in Vick all day, and they remembered exactly what Johnson told them during the week: Be aggressive, but don't you dare let Vick get around the corner on you. "He had us in a perfect gameplan,'' said defensive tackle Corey Simon.
Goat of the Week
Pittsburgh quarterback Ben Roethlisberger. Three picks, one returned 87 yards for a touchdown, usually doom your team, and that's exactly what happened to the Steelers with the kid. I hate giving him the goat horns this morning, but facts are facts. He was plain lousy the last two weeks. But let's remember one thing: The reason we're all scratching our heads after his poor play is because he set such a high standard for four months. The Steelers, once they get over the disappointment of this game, will realize they're darned lucky to have Roethlisberger under center for the next 12 years.
Stat of the Week
Bill Belichick and Vince Lombardi have the same postseason record: 9-1.
Factoid That May Interest Only Me
The Eagles run through an inflatable tunnel and gigantic helmet before the game. The tunnel is sponsored by Levitra, the erectile drug. Before the game, as it was being inflated in the southwest corner of the end zone, the comedy dean of NFL writers, Larry Weisman of USA Today, leaned over to me and said: "If it doesn't deflate in four hours, are you supposed to call your doctor?"
Quote of the Week
"People have waited 20 years for this. Philadelphia, there you go.''
-- Eagles receiver Freddie Mitchell on the NFC Championship Game win.
Aggravating/Enjoyable Travel Note of the Week
"Is Sports Illustrated paying tonight?'' Mitchell asked me last Thursday night. We were seated at a new Philadelphia steakhouse, Barclay Prime.
"Yes,'' I said.
Uh-oh. That's trouble. An NFL player, a former first-round pick with some dough, has a blank check. At least he thinks he does.
Mitchell then took the menu out of my hand and said to our waiter, "I'll be ordering for Mr. King."
He ordered me Kobe sliders, and the Kobe cheesesteak sandwich, which I'd heard some legendary stories about. The waiter, Matthew, said there was some really fancy cheese, some really interesting imported mustard and even a dollop of lobster thrown in for good measure. Because they're sporty, I guess, the place threw in a half-bottle of champagne with the cheesesteak. Uh-oh.
The sliders were White-Castle-sized mini-burgers, only round. Two to an order. Just phenomenal. The meat was terrific -- tender and tasty.
Mitchell likes to go to Barclay Prime Saturday nights before home games and he knew quite a few people there. He signed a few autographs, shook a lot of hands, accepted lots of good-lucks. Living large, as they say.
And here came the cheesesteak. Very good. What beef. Incredible beef, really. So good and so big that I couldn't finish.
A shame, seeing as the cost of said cheesesteak was $105.
That is not a misprint.
Worst abuse of SI expense account by yours truly since 1991, when Phil Simms ordered a $75 glass of brandy the week before the Scott Norwood Super Bowl in Tampa, and, of course, I had to buck up and have one with him.
Please go easy on me, Time-Warner Business Dept. I have been good, really good. But it's the playoffs and Freddie Mitchell had a chance to be a really good hero story this week. I promise I won't ask for anything for Christmas this year.