Donovan McNabb was about to throw the most important pass of his life, and as the Philadelphia Eagles' quarterback stood tall against the Green Bay Packers' pass rush—and Philly's legacy of big-game letdowns—one of the people he depends on most was out of position. "I can't look," McNabb's mother and constant champion, Wilma, said from the back of a luxury suite at Lincoln Financial Field on Sunday night, having abandoned her seat up front several seconds earlier. With the Eagles trailing by three points and only 1:12 remaining in an NFC divisional playoff, McNabb had dropped back on fourth-and-26 from the Philly 26 as a chilling wind swept through the open windows of box 48. Wilma couldn't bear to watch the last-gasp attempt, which, were it to fall short, would doom her son to a new wave of criticism from temperamental Eagles fans, not to mention devotees of a certain conservative commentator who last September played the race card while discussing her son's on-field struggles.
The rush was on, and down on the field Wilma's baby never flinched. "Just give it all you've got," McNabb had told his teammates in the huddle before the snap. "Leave it all on the field, and let's go get this." The call was 74 Double-Go, and when McNabb saw that Green Bay was in its 44 coverage, a soft zone that featured-four defensive backs spread across the field near the first-down marker, he knew to lock in on slot receiver Freddie Mitchell, who'd be dashing Up the middle.
The blitz-happy Packers had sacked McNabb on four of his previous eight pass plays, but this time they rushed only four men, giving the quarterback time to set his feet and step into his throw. McNabb's perfect spiral zoomed toward Mitchell, who nabbed it between defensive back Bhawoh Jue and fast-closing safeties Darren Sharper and Marques Anderson for a 28-yard gain. The raucous roar that followed from 67,706 fans and one protective mother brought some brotherly love back to an often cynical city and quickened the pulses of viewers around the country.
In capping a wild weekend of postseason football at its best, McNabb and the Eagles flipped the script and wrote a surprise ending. Instead of falling short of the Super Bowl for the fourth consecutive postseason, McNabb guided his team into position for David Akers's game-tying 37-yard field goal with five seconds left in regulation. Instead of extending his winter whirlwind of grief-tinged grandeur, Packers quarterback Brett Favre served up an unfathomably ugly interception to free safety Brian Dawkins on his team's first snap in overtime, setting up Akers's 31-yard game-winner.
Thus the top-seeded Eagles escaped with a 20-17 victory that propelled them into the NFC Championship Game this Sunday against the Carolina Panthers. With a win in that matchup at the Line, a Philly team that lost its first two games of the season would take the franchise to its second-ever Super Bowl and its first in 23 years. "How the hell does that happen?" Eagles fullback Jon Ritchie asked after Sunday's game. "Our success remains a mystery."
How could a team that, in falling behind 14-0 in the first quarter on Sunday, looked uglier than Saddam Hussein in his spider hole emerge victorious? How could a quarterback who appeared so skittish in the pocket—McNabb was sacked eight times and scrambled on 11 other occasions, albeit for 107 yards (an NFL playoff record for a quarterback)—be so cool when it counted most?
"It doesn't make sense," said Troy Vincent, Philly's injured Pro Bowl cornerback. "There were so many situations in that game when you'd say, 'It's over,' and then the next second you'd say, 'Wow, how'd he do it?' It makes you wonder. Maybe we had something—I'm not even going to say the word—on our side."
The word is destiny, and it has been tossed around liberally since Dec. 22 when Favre, a day after the death of his father, Irvin, from an apparent heart attack, threw for 399 yards and four touchdowns in Green Bay's victory over the Oakland Raiders. A series of unlikely events helped the Pack slip into the playoffs, and then Favre added to his Hall of Fame r�sum� by keying a 33-27 overtime win against the Seattle Seahawks in the wild-card round.
The Packers came floating into Philly convinced they had tapped into some supernatural source—or, at the very least, a 34-year-old quarterback's inspired resurgence. On the other hand McNabb and the Eagles wanted no part of the d word. Recalling the previous season, when the top-seeded Eagles suffered a 27-10 home loss to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in the NFC Championship Game, McNabb said last Friday, "We were destined last year. Look, only one man knows what's going to happen next, and He doesn't care about sports."
Then McNabb, as he seems to do every 2.3 seconds, broke into a huge smile. He was sitting at a cafeteria table in the Eagles' plush training facility, and the ebullient personality that makes him a natural leader was on display. There's no prima donna in him—McNabb is as comfortable kicking it with rapper Jay-Z, who watched Philadelphia's regular-season home finale in the McNabb family box, as he is goofing with the cafeteria workers. "Yo, Pee Wee, where's the pizza?" McNabb yelled at one middle-aged man behind the counter. When another man instructed a coworker to "make this man [McNabb] a wrap," the quarterback shot back, "You rap too?"