PHILADELPHIA —Donovan McNabb flexed his muscles, seemingly mocking Terrell Owens. The always stoic Andy Reid played cheerleader, encouraging the crowd to make noise.
Many fans may not want the quarterback or coach back for another season. But they’ll be here for at least one more game—a playoff game.
The Philadelphia Eagles overcame daunting odds to capture an NFC wild-card spot with a dominating 44-6 victory over the Cowboys on Sunday. So much for all that preseason Super Bowl hype in Dallas—America’s Team can start its vacation plans early.
The Eagles (9-6-1) will play at NFC North champion Minnesota (10-6) next weekend.
“A lot of people counted us out and said it was over,” McNabb said. “We continued to stay focused on what the plan was. We knew we had to come out and play a tough team that was hungry, just like we were. Today was a total team effort. Things worked out well and we’re playing next week.”
Surely, it’ll be a drama-filled offseason for the Cowboys, as owner Jerry Jones has to answer more questions about coach Wade Phillips’ job and perhaps consider a major overhaul.
“There will not be a new head coach,” Jones repeated several times in a somber Cowboys locker room.
In a game that became do-or-die for both teams shortly before kickoff, the Eagles thoroughly outplayed the error-prone Cowboys (9-7) in every facet. McNabb threw two touchdown passes and ran for another, and Brian Dawkins forced two fumbles that were returned for scores.
Written off after a 10-3 loss at Washington last week, Philadelphia avoided elimination when Oakland upset Tampa Bay and Houston beat Chicago in the early games. The Raiders were 13-point underdogs against the Buccaneers, who lost their fourth straight.
“I want to thank the Raiders and Texans,” Reid said. “They did a heck of a job.”
Of all the teams that remained in contention for a playoff berth entering the final weekend, the Eagles had the lowest odds. Meanwhile, Dallas knew all week it just had to win to get in.
How ‘bout them Cowboys!
Tony Romo came up way short in another crucial game, dropping his record to 5-8 in December. T.O. was a non-factor, despite six catches for 103 yards.
“They just handed us an old-fashioned butt whipping,” Owens said. “I don’t have all the answers, but I’d love to be part of the solution.”
Right from the start, the Eagles played with more urgency. While fans cheered Tampa’s loss to Oakland, players waited until that game was over before running onto the field for pregame introductions.
McNabb scored on a sneak from inside the 1 to put Philadelphia ahead 10-3 in the second quarter. He kept the drive going with a 59-yard catch-and-run to Correll Buckhalter on third-and-6. Buckhalter, who has missed three full seasons to knee injuries during his eight-year career, outran several tacklers to reach the Cowboys 6.
Then the Eagles scored 17 points in the final 2:03 of the second quarter. McNabb tossed a 4-yard TD pass to Buckhalter to make it 17-3 just before the 2-minute warning. He twice kept the drive going in third-and-long situations, connecting with Kevin Curtis for 15 yards and DeSean Jackson for 34 yards to the Cowboys 3.
Sheldon Brown intercepted Romo’s underthrown pass to Roy Williams on Dallas’ ensuing possession and returned it 23 yards to the Dallas 42. Then two big penalties—a personal foul on Adam “Pacman” Jones and pass interference against Terence Newman in the end zone—set up McNabb’s 1-yard TD pass to Brent Celek.
A fired-up McNabb sprinted toward the Eagles sideline and suddenly stopped. He turned around toward the Cowboys bench and flexed, the way T.O. often does.
“It’s an exciting time for us right now, but we can’t sit and dwell on this for a long time,” McNabb said. “We know we have a tough team ahead of us, a tough task.”
Jones was stripped by Quintin Demps on the kickoff and Omar Gaither recovered at the Cowboys 31 with 3 seconds left in the half. David Akers made a 50-yard field goal to give the Eagles a 27-3 lead going into halftime.
Dallas pulled out all the tricks on the first possession of the third quarter, including a 42-yard pass from tight end Jason Witten to Owens to the Eagles 14. But Dawkins sacked Romo on the next play, and Chris Clemons picked up the fumble and raced 73 yards for a score that gave Philly a 34-3 lead.
Joselio Hanson returned Marion Barber’s fumble 96 yards for a TD on the next series.
“I wake up tomorrow and I keep living,” Romo said when asked how he deals with tough defeats.
The Eagles seemed headed for their third last-place finish in four years after they tied lowly Cincinnati and were routed by Baltimore in consecutive weeks last month. McNabb was benched for the first time in his career in that loss to the Ravens and his future in Philadelphia was the hot topic.
But McNabb came back strong and led the Eagles to three straight wins only to fall short against the Redskins—Reggie Brown was tackled at the 1 on the final play.
Still, the Eagles found a way to make the playoffs after getting all the help they needed around the league.
“Everybody turned their backs on us,” Dawkins said. “But we believed in one another.”