Monday, January 14, 2008

25 Years of Philly Sports Hell: The Worst Moments: Part V

The latest in a series of of soul-cleansing moments for Philadelphia sports fans as we complete a 25 year cycle of unmatched sports futility. For a full explanation of this series, look here. Moment IV appears here.

January 27, 2002. They were so young.

This was the second straight playoff appearance for the Donovan McNabb-led Eagles. This was a team of impending greatness. Keep in mind, the Patriots won their first Super Bowl that year. If some miraculous plays hadn't gone the Pats' way in the AFC Title Game and the Eagles had gotten one more break in the NFC Title Game... well, we don't think things would be reversed. But dammit, you just don't know.

This was the Eagles' first NFC Title Game appearance in 21 years. Their first foray had gone well, so why wouldn't this one? Frankly, the Birds were playing with house money -- they were playing the juggernaut Rams on their home field. The Eagles had hammered Tampa in Philly to open the playoffs (spelling doom for Tony Dungy) and then stunned the favored Bears in Chicago in McNabb's best playoff performance ever prior to the 2005 playoffs.

Now, the Rams were an offensive juggernaut, having piled up 503 points on the year (that's over 31 per game). The Eagles' defense had ripped Tampa and Chicago's pedestrian offenses to shreds, but theis was the so-called Greatest Show on Turf. How could they be stopped? Or even slowed down? Well, the Birds had already done it.

While the Rams had cruised to a 14-2 record, that included a tight 20-17 win in the opener against the Eagles at the Vet. That game had gone to overtime, and featured several chances for the Eagles to pull out the win. The Rams scored fewer than 20 points in only two other games that year. And while this game had to be played in the Rams' super-loud Edward Jones Dome, there was no reason the Birds couldn't pull the upset. Well, other than Marshall Faulk.

What kills me about this game is how well the Eagles played, the heart and grit they showed, and how injuries killed them. Three key injuries hurt the team, and two of them kept the Birds out of the Super Bowl.

The first injury had occurred the week before - Pro Bowl corner Troy Vincent tweaked his groin against the Bears. Vincent survived the first half against the Rams before heading to the bench permanently. The first half also saw the second crucial injury -- Eagles rookie RB Correll Buckhalter gashed the Rams for 50 yards on 6 first half carries. But Buckhalter's star-crossed career saw its first significant pro injury, a high ankle sprain that sent him to the sidelines for good at halftime.

The halftime score, by the way, was Eagles 17, Rams 13.

Without Vincent in the third quarter, Jim Johnson's creative blitz schemes were curtailed, as he opted to keep his safeties back in coverage. Brian Dawkins, who had single-handedly ended a first-half drive with a serious of spectacular plays, now had to sit back in centerfield, and the Rams took advantage. With Johnson protecting his secondary, the Rams started to eat up clock with Marshall Faulk dominating the action. A week later in the Super Bowl, Rams coach Mike Martz would let his ego get the better of him and keep throwing, but here he smartly switched gears and ran Faulk down the Birds' throats.

The Eagles, without a complement to the passing game, ran just five offensive plays in the third quarter. The defense was exhausted (and the secondary woes got worse when strong safety Damon Moore tore an ACL trying to tackle Faulk), as the Rams scored sixteen consecutive points.

What's even worse are the moments where things could have turned the Eagles' way. The Pats had won the AFC Title Game thanks in part to a wacky blocked field goal return that featured a lateral. Bounces went their way -- they did not for the Birds. For example, the kickoff that opened the second half was fumbled by St. Louis returner Yo Murphy, but the Rams fell on it. And worst of all was the punt.

After the Eagles stormed back to score a TD (thanks in part to a great kickoff return by Brian Mitchell) and cut the lead to five points, Reid kicked off deep. The Rams went three-and-out as the proud Eagles D came up huge. Rams punter John Baker lined up to punt, something he'd rarely done all season... and Eagles DE N.D. Kalu stormed in, ready to block the kick. Somehow, the ball sailed either between or just above his fingertips. Ask a true Eagles fan about N.D. Kalu, and three words will come to mind: "That *&^%$ punt..."

4 plays later, the game was over, following a McNabb pick on a desperate fourth down heave intended for Freddie Mitchell. The Rams headed for the Super Bowl, ready to turn into one of the greatest upset victims of all-time. The Eagles went home, confident that they would be back. And they would be, but the endings to their seasons wouldn't get better. At least so far...

Take a deep breath, fellow Philly fans. Let this one go, and let's move on to the next. Only 20 more to go.



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