PHILADELPHIA — Receiver L.J. Smith tucked in the ball thrown to him by Philadelphia Eagle quarterback Donovan McNabb and prepared to bounce into the end zone, which was only a few yards away.
It was the second quarter of Sunday's NFC divisional playoff game at Lincoln Financial Field, the Eagles trying to extend a seven-point lead over the Minnesota Vikings.
Instead of the end zone, however, Smith found himself heading straight up into the air after Minnesota defensive back Antoine Winfield cut his legs out from under him. The ball, torn from Smith's grasp by the force of the impact, was up for grabs, a short popup lazily crossing the goal line.
There were several Minnesota defenders in the area and only one Eagle, receiver Freddie Mitchell.
In a town made cynical by three consecutive Eagle losses in the NFC championship game, most would have predicted that it would be a Viking who wound up with the ball, putting Minnesota back into the game.
Instead, it landed in the arms of a surprised Mitchell for the touchdown and the Vikings never recovered, losing, 27-14, in front of a sellout crowd of 67,722.
"That just goes to show you things are going our way," McNabb said afterward with a big smile. "We all know that ball might have bounced a different way in previous years."
The Eagles (14-3) will get a chance next Sunday to find out if this is truly a different year when they play host to the Atlanta Falcons, 47-17 winners Saturday against the St. Louis Rams, in the NFC championship game.
In defeating the Vikings, the Eagles alleviated concerns that had grown in the last month. When star receiver Terrell Owens fractured his right ankle in the team's 15th game, there were concerns the Eagles couldn't win without him. When Coach Andy Reid didn't play some of his starters and the NFC East champions lost their last two regular-season games, there were concerns momentum had been lost and rust had accrued, especially to McNabb's arm. When the Vikings, 8-8 in the regular season, upset the Packers in Green Bay in last week's wild-card playoff round, there were concerns about another upset Sunday.
But all those concerns were set aside by McNabb, who didn't show as much as a smudge of rust in completing 21 of 33 passes for 286 yards and two touchdowns; by running back Brian Westbrook, who showed his versatility by gaining 70 yards in 12 carries and catching five passes for 47 yards and a touchdown; and by a dominating defense that sacked Minnesota quarterback Daunte Culpepper three times and picked off two of his passes.
And oh yes, there was Mitchell, the former UCLA Bruin, who is trying to fill two of Owens' roles, those of superlative receiver and master showman.
Mitchell filled the first role by catching five passes for a team-high 65 yards and a touchdown. That was in addition to the one he scored on the loose ball from Smith, recorded as a fumble recovery.
And Mitchell filled the second role after catching a two-yard touchdown pass from McNabb to open the scoring in the first quarter.
Playing off Viking receiver Randy Moss' controversial touchdown celebration last week in Green Bay, where he pretended to moon the crowd, Mitchell pretended to pull up his pants after scoring Sunday.
"It was to make someone smile," Mitchell said.
That someone certainly wasn't Moss, whose season ended with what appeared to be another controversy, although his coach and teammates absolved him of blame.
On a day when he caught three passes for a quiet 51 yards, the man who was lambasted several weeks ago for leaving the sidelines before a game was over was questioned Sunday about leaving the field before a crucial play had been run.
But this time, Moss was innocent.
The play came late in the second quarter after Mitchell's fumble recovery. Hoping to respond with a touchdown of their own, the Vikings drove from their 39-yard line to the Philadelphia three, where they faced fourth and goal. Minnesota Coach Mike Tice sent in the field-goal unit, which includes backup quarterback Gus Frerotte as the holder.
It was to be a fake. Moss was supposed to act as if he was heading off the field, but remain inbounds. Then, with the snap of the ball, he would be the first option for Frerotte.
When offensive lineman Cory Withrow failed to come off the field, Viking coaches on the sideline began yelling for him to do so. Moss, thinking they were talking to him, stepped off instead. The play broke down and Frerotte was forced to throw the ball away, killing a prime opportunity for the Vikings.
"There was confusion by some people," Frerotte said. "It would have been nice if [Moss] had been standing out there."
Moss declined to defend himself to the media, offering no comment.
"It's unfortunate," Tice said, "because I think we left a good little seven [points] right there."
Culpepper competed 24 of 46 for 316 yards, including a 32-yard touchdown pass to Marcus Robinson. Culpepper also ran for a seven-yard touchdown.
But ultimately isn't wasn't enough against an Eagle team that, already fortified with a multifaceted offense and a tough, opportunistic defense, added some luck, perhaps the intangible that will finally push it beyond the NFC championship game on its fourth try.
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With Sunday's victory over the Minnesota Vikings, Philadelphia's Andy Reid has the best record among NFL coaches in games after bye weeks (regular season and playoffs). The top five (minimum of five games):
*--* COACH W-L WIN % ANDY REID 9-0 1.000 DON SHULA 8-0 1.000 BARRY SWITZER 6-0 1.000 JERRY GLANVILLE 5-0 1.000 MARV LEVY 11-1 917