With the Eagles facing Atlanta this Sunday night, let’s take a look back at the one Eagles/Falcons game that stands above all others: The 2004 NFC Championship game. It’s a game I will always remember; hell, it’s a game every Eagles fan who was around will always remember. It isn’t so much the game itself though, it is what the game meant to this city.
It’s crazy how different the sports psyche of this town was in 2004 than it is now. We all know the history. Philadelphia hadn’t seen a championship since ’83 and was in the longest such streak for any city with 4 major sports teams. This was when Philly sports teams were cursed; we couldn’t win. Even Smarty Jones fell short. The Eagles were no different. The Reid-McNabb led Eagles had made the NFC title game in 2001 and lost to the favored Rams. The next year, the Birds again made it to the conference championship game, but were stunned by the Buccaneers in the last game at Veterans Stadium. Then in 2003, the Eagles gave us 4th and 26th in the divisional game against the Packers only to lose horribly in the NFC title game against the Panthers at home.
For a franchise that hadn’t been to the Super Bowl in more than 20 years, ending the season one game short in 2002 and 2003 left the entire city in a collective clinical depression. These losses were devastating. Remember, this was when the entire city lived and died with the Eagles; it was long before the rediscovered love affair with the Phillies sparked back up. Philadelphians were invested in the Eagles, and they had perpetually let us down just when we were on the brink of the promised land.
In the offseason prior to the 2004 campaign, Jeremiah Trotter came home and the Eagles added two key free agents in Javon Kearse and a little-known, quiet, role player receiver from Tenneessee Chattanooga. After a blistering 13-1 start, the Eagles rested their starters for the final two games of the year. With a bye in the first round and then an easy home win against the Vikings, the Birds again found themselves one win away from the Super Bowl as a home favorite in the NFC Championship Game. Their opponent would be the Atlanta Falcons.
The game was played Sunday, January 23, 2005…just after a blizzard blew through Philadelphia leaving 2 feet of snow and 17 degree temperatures with brutal 25 mph winds. (Note: The snow was a good omen. The Eagles won their first championship in 1948 at Shibe Park in a blizzard. The weather was so bad that fans were given free entry into the game if they brought a shovel and helped clear the field.) With those conditions, neither team could rely too much on the passing game and if the Eagles were going to finally get to the Super Bowl, they would need to limit Mike Vick’s game-breaking plays.
After winning the toss, the Eagles decided to kick and put their defense on the field first. Andy Reid was confident in Jim Johnson’s scheme, which clearly focused much more on containing Vick than it did blitzing. Jevon Kearse and Derrick Burgess played the edges and didn’t let Vick loose. After forcing a quick three-and-out, the Eagles drove downfield to the Atlanta 29 where they failed on a fake field goal attempt to Chad Lewis and turned the ball over on downs. After a 34-yard-drive, Atlanta was forced to punt at the Eagles 38 with a chance to really pin the Birds deep. Swirling winds wreaked havoc on Chris Mohr though, who could only manage an 8-yard punt. The Birds took advantage with a 70-yard drive that featured a 36-yard run by #36 and ended with a 4-yard TD plunge by Dorsey Levens, who was pushed into the endzone by Jermaine Mayberry.
On the ensuring possession, Atlanta took 9 minutes off the clock driving to the Eagles 2 with a 1st and goal. With their backs against the wall, Jim Johnson’s bend-but-don’t-break defense came alive. On first down, the Birds stuffed T.J. Duckett for a loss. On second down, Michael Lewis blitzed and knocked down a Vick pass attempt. On 3rd and goal from the 4, Vick dropped back to pass, saw nobody open, and took off up the middle towards the end-zone. That’s when Hollis Thomas made the first big defensive play of the game when he launched himself at Vick and planted him at the line of scrimmage. A Jay Feely field goal made the score 7-3.
The Eagles answered with a drive of their own that was kept alive by Donovan McNabb. On a 3rd and 11 at the Eagles 40, McNabb eluded three defenders in the pocket and then fired to Freddie Mitchell for a first down. Then, a long completion on an underthrown ball to Greg Lewis put the Eagles on the Atlanta 4. McNabb capped the drive with a TD pass on a play-action to Chad Lewis for a 14-3 lead.
When the Falcons got the ball back with about 5 minutes left in the first half, they got their running game going a bit. Then Vick completed a long pass to Alge Crumpler at the Eagles 10, who was absolutely annihilated by Brian Dawkins, but somehow held onto the ball. Warrick Dunn then raced for a TD through the middle to bring the Falcons within 4 points at halftime.
The Eagles opened up the second-half with a 60-yard drive (Westbrook accounted for 48 of those yards) that ended in a David Akers FG to increase the lead to 17-10. From this point on, the Eagles defense played to perfection. Burgess and Kearse didn’t allow Vick any freedom and Trotter and co. stopped Dunn from any significant gains. Vick was sacked a total of 4 times and he lost more yards on those sacks than he gained through scrambling.
After both teams traded punts, the Falcons started on their own 10-yard line with 3 minutes left in the third quarter. On 1st down, Dawkins picked off Vick and took the ball to the 11-yard line. However, Atlanta stood strong and forced the Eagles to settle for another David Akers field goal and a 20-10 lead.
The Eagles entered the 4th quarter with a lead in the NFC Championship Game, something they hadn’t done in their previous three appearances. The defense continued to limit Vick and the Atlanta offence. Burgess picked up his second sack of the day on an incredible open-field, one-on-one tackle on Vick. After two straight Falcon drives ended in punts, the Eagles got the ball on their own 35 yard-line 10 football minutes away from the Super Bowl. Reid and McNabb would orchestrate their best drive of the day. An 11-play, seven-minute drive ending in another Chad Lewis TD reception put the Eagles up 27-10 with less than 3 and a half minutes remaining.
That deal-sealing touchdown started the party. The crowd at the Linc didn’t sit down the entire second-half, but it was much nerves than excitement. That changed when Chad Lewis hauled in that pass. The crowd erupted in pure, unadulterated elation. A weight had been lifted off the Eagles and off this city. Finally. Chants of “Super Bowl! Super Bowl! Super Bowl!” went on for what seemed like forever. Grown men hugging and high-fiving and crying and watching the clock count down to 00:00. As I said before, I’ll never forget it.