PHILADELPHIA -- The Carolina Panthers celebrated as if
they've done this before.
The Philadelphia Eagles dressed in stunned silence, something
they've certainly done before.
The upstart Panthers became the latest team to torment the
Eagles, winning a 14-3 shocker that ended with an injured Donovan
McNabb watching helplessly from the sideline.
"We have a bunch of strong-willed guys, and they keep swinging
their sword until they get it done," said Panthers coach John Fox,
who engineered the remarkable turnaround from a 1-15 record two
In two weeks, the Panthers will face New England for the NFL
"They aren't going to be denied," Fox said.
For the third straight year, the Eagles were denied their first
trip to the Super Bowl since 1981. This one was particularly
"It's going to be hard to swallow again," McNabb said, "To
think about this all of the offseason again and try to get over
"For us to get here three times and not be able to go further,
Rookie Ricky Manning Jr. hurt the Eagles most, getting three
interceptions against McNabb, who suffered separated rib cartilage
on a second-quarter sack.
"We were attacking all day," said Manning, also a hero last
week when his interception led to the winning touchdown in double
overtime against the Rams.
Fox's fierce defense produced five sacks and one more pickoff,
by Dan Morgan.
"We were so physical out there," said safety Mike Minter, who
forced a turnover with a ferocious hit. "We do it all the time."
Stephen Davis, coming off a quadriceps injury following the win
at St. Louis, rushing for 76 yards and backup DeShaun Foster got 60
and a touchdown.
"I was ready," Davis said in a business-like dressing room.
"We all were ready."
The Eagles were not. Again.
They haven't won a league crown since 1960. They are now the
first team to lose three straight conference championship games
since the Dallas Cowboys from 1980-82. And they are the first team
to host consecutive conference championships and lose both since
game sites originally were determined by record in 1975.
"The writing is on the wall," cornerback Bobby Taylor said.
"We pretty much know the chances of what's going to happen."
Eight days after ending the Rams' 14-game home winning streak,
the Panthers marched into The Linc and grabbed their first
conference crown. They'd gotten this far in 1996, their second
season, but lost to Green Bay.
In January, they have routed Dallas at home before their two
biggest road victories.
Now, it's the Patriots, who beat Indianapolis 24-14 earlier
Sunday for the AFC title, on Feb. 1 in Houston.
"I'm going to try not to think about the Patriots tonight so I
can at least get some sleep," quarterback Jake Delhomme said. "I
don't want to think about that defense just yet."
Fox's opportunistic defense made the difference Sunday, led by a
fierce pass rush and third-round draft pick Manning, who tied an
NFC championship game record with his three pickoffs. The Panthers
hurt McNabb in the second quarter, then destroyed Philadelphia with
a powerful display in the third period.
By the final quarter, McNabb was out of the game and the Eagles
were out of options.
With McNabb sidelined, Koy Detmer led the Eagles to the Carolina
11, but then forced a throw over the middle that Morgan grabbed.
Overall, McNabb was just 10-for-22 for 100 yards. He could
provide none of the heroics of last week, when he rallied the
Eagles over Green Bay 20-17 in overtime. This decisive loss will
erase the glory of "fourth-and-26," the play that saved
Philadelphia's season -- for one week.
Carolina barely needed Delhomme's passing and he was a mere
9-for-14 for 101 yards.
Manning's third interception -- off a deflection when receiver
James Thrash was hit by Minter -- and his 17-yard return were
critical. So was the inability of the Eagles' secondary to make the
same kind of plays.
Lito Sheppard's 14-yard interference penalty against Steve Smith
put Carolina at the 1. Foster then powered through four tacklers
for a 14-3 lead with 4:11 left in the third quarter.
In the first half, despite double coverage, Muhsin Muhammad made
a 24-yard touchdown catch for a 7-0 lead.
"That was a play I could have made," Taylor said. "No excuse.
I turned around and it was too late."
Earlier in the second quarter, on a third-and-1, Foster fumbled,
but teammate Jermaine Wiggins pounced on it for a 2-yard gain. Soon
after, Muhammad came back for the ball when Taylor and Brian
Unfazed, Philadelphia marched to the Carolina 23, where McNabb
tripped going back to pass and was sacked by Mike Rucker. Shaken
with the rib injury, he left for one play, then returned to
complete a 10-yard pass to Freddie Mitchell that originally was
ruled a drop.
But after coach Andy Reid's successful replay challenge, David
Akers kicked a 41-yard field goal for the Eagles' only points.
Manning picked off McNabb's poor pass with 47 seconds remaining
in the first half, which ended 7-3.
Manning's second interception was even more significant. He
stepped in front of Todd Pinkston on a third down from the Carolina
18 and McNabb threw the ball directly to him. Manning celebrated
with an Ali Shuffle.
He'd deliver the knockout punch a little later and had three
interceptions in 9:39.