Super Bowl awaits Panthers after upset win over Eagles

Monday, January 19, 2004

PHILADELPHIA -- They were fearless in Philly and now they're Super Bowl-bound.

The upstart Carolina Panthers became the latest team to torment the Eagles in the NFC championship game, 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 years ago.

In two weeks, the Panthers will face New England for the NFL title.

"They aren't going to be denied," Fox said.

Not with rookie Ricky Manning Jr. 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.

Not with Fox's ferocious defense producing 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."

And not with Stephen Davis, coming off a quadriceps injury following the win at St. Louis, rushing for 76 yards and backup DeShaun Foster getting 60 and a touchdown.

"I was ready," Davis said. "We all were ready."

The Eagles were not. Again.

They haven't won a league crown since 1960 and they haven't been to the Super Bowl since 1981. That leaves them facing another off season of wondering what it takes to get there.

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.

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.

"It's going to be hard to swallow again," McNabb admitted.

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 Jake Delhomme's passing and he was a mere 9-for-14 for 101 yards.

"The defense played lights out," Delhomme said.

Manning's third interception -- off a deflection when receiver James Thrash was hit by Minter -- and his 17-yard return was 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 Dawkins didn't.


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