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Burden to Bear

NFC: McNabb, Eagles break hearts all over Chicago with 33-19 win that puts them in the conference title game.

January 20, 2002|DIANE PUCIN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

CHICAGO — With his legs, Donovan McNabb broke the heart of Chicago. With his arm, McNabb collapsed the big shoulders of the big city.

It was not, after all, the return of Michael Jordan that crushed the spirit of this sports-crazy place, but the homecoming of Chicago native McNabb, the Philadelphia Eagle quarterback who neutralized Brian Urlacher, pulverized Ted Washington, Keith Traylor and all of the other big, bruising Chicago Bear defenders.

It was McNabb, a fan of the Bears for most of his life, who set the tone from the beginning until the end of Philadelphia's 33-19 smashing of the Bears Saturday in an NFC divisional playoff game at Soldier Field.

The Eagles (13-5) will play the winner of today's game between St. Louis and Green Bay for the NFC championship next Sunday. The Bears (13-4) will stagger into the off-season stunned by the brilliance of McNabb and bruised by the courage and tenacity of an underappreciated Eagle defense.

Jordan, playing here for the first time as something other than a Chicago Bull, was relatively ordinary at the United Center, even if his Washington Wizards did win.

McNabb was positively extraordinary. He threw for two touchdowns and ran for a third. He escaped defenders and high-stepped out of sure sacks.

McNabb, who once played a high school championship game at Soldier Field, completed 26 of 40 passes for 262 yards. He also ran for 37 yards. He made Urlacher, an all-pro and maybe the best defender in the league, first frustrated, then spitting mad and, finally, respectful of McNabb.

"He's better than advertised," Urlacher said. "What you see on film doesn't do him justice. Donovan is tough and smart and he played a great, great game. Give him a lot of credit."

The Bears, winners of the NFC Central, hadn't been to the playoffs since 1994. Their home field, filled with history, will be shut down for a year's worth of renovations and a general updating. The last game played on this old, hard field will be filled with memories the Bears will want bulldozed away.

On their first possession, the Eagles got a 34-yard field goal from David Akers. The big play was a 14-yard pass from McNabb to receiver James Thrash. After the Bears went three and out, the Eagles got another Akers field goal, 23 yards this time. The big play in the drive, maybe in the game, was a 43-yard pass from McNabb to Thrash, taking the Eagles from their 33 to Chicago's 24.

Twice McNabb seemed tackled before he released the pass. Chicago arms grabbed his legs, his shoulders, tugged at his feet. McNabb escaped. His legs are strong enough to outmuscle a defender's Bear hug, his shoulders sturdy enough to shake it off.

"This is what [McNabb] does," Bear Coach Dick Jauron said. "He moves around in the pocket and finds guys that are not initially open. He can buy time with his legs and his athletic ability."

Even though the Eagles were dominating, the Bears took a 7-6 lead when reserve wide receiver Ahmad Merritt scored his first NFL touchdown on a 47-yard run, taking a handoff from backup quarterback Shane Matthews and streaking up the left sideline.

Matthews was playing because, just over two minutes into the second quarter, starter Jim Miller threw an interception to Philadelphia's Damon Moore. During Moore's 18-yard runback, defensive end Hugh Douglas smashed into Miller, who suffered a separated shoulder and never returned.

And that was not the only big injury a Bear starter suffered. Wide receiver Marty Booker also separated a shoulder and safety Mike Brown suffered a concussion when he delivered a hit to UCLA alumnus Freddie Mitchell on a punt return.

After Chicago's first score, McNabb took the Eagles on an 11-play, 69-yard touchdown drive. He threw the scoring pass, 13 yards to Cecil Martin, with 14 seconds left in the first half. McNabb had to scramble, duck, dance and move forward, backward and sideways to escape Chicago defenders while waiting for a receiver to get open.

"Donovan is fun to watch," Eagle Coach Andy Reid said.

That 13-7 lead disappeared too. The Bears reclaimed the lead, again without benefit of a long drive. This time it was an interception by cornerback Jerry Azumah. R.J. McQuarters dived and tipped the pass. Azumah caught it, juggled it, caught it again and ran 39 yards for the score. That 14-13 advantage would be Chicago's last.

After the Eagles had gone ahead, 20-14, the Bears drew within three with a 38-yard field goal by Paul Edinger. But Akers kicked two more field goals, his third and fourth of the game, to put the Eagles ahead, 26-17.

From there, it was all McNabb. His throwing and running kept the ball from the Bears. He ran five yards for the final touchdown with 3:21 to play, and when the final seconds ticked away, he threw up his arms and shouted.

"I've always loved this place, loved it to death," he said. "What a great place to win a big game."

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Passing the Test

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