PHILADELPHIA — Donovan McNabb had been through it all before.
In his dreams.
He had imagined the roar of the crowd, the light touch of confetti falling on his broad shoulders, the feel of the championship trophy in his hands and the warm embrace of his joyous teammates.
But after trips to the NFC championship game the previous three years, all ending in losses, after watching the St. Louis Rams, Tampa Bay Buccaneers and Carolina Panthers celebrate, dreams were all the Philadelphia Eagle quarterback had.
Until Sunday. On a bitterly cold, windy, harsh day at Lincoln Financial Field that felt better to McNabb than a day on a tropical beach, he and his teammates finally overcame their seasons of frustration by beating the Atlanta Falcons, 27-10, to earn a trip to Super Bowl XXXIX.
The Eagles will face the New England Patriots in Jacksonville, Fla., on Feb. 6, Philadelphia's second trip to football's biggest show and its first in a quarter century. In 1981, the Eagles lost, 27-10, to the Oakland Raiders in Super Bowl XV.
"It definitely was," McNabb said when asked if the victory had been everything he had imagined. "It's just a great feeling for the city of Philadelphia. The last three years we were ... close and never really able to pull it out. But this year was something special.
"We know a lot of people turned their backs on us and just didn't have the confidence that we would be able to do it."
Not many doubters could be spotted among the crowd of 67,717 that turned out despite temperatures that dropped to between zero and minus five degrees with the wind-chill factor, and winds estimated at 25-30 mph.
But ultimately it wasn't the elements that decided the outcome. It was the McNabb-led offense, which did not commit a turnover; the dual role of Brian Westbrook as runner and receiver, and an often overlooked defense that shut down Atlanta quarterback Michael Vick and the NFL's top running game.
After averaging 167 yards a game rushing in the regular season and accumulating 327 last week in a 47-17 victory over the Rams in the divisional playoffs, the fourth-highest rushing total in playoff history, the Falcons were held to 99 yards Sunday, no gain longer than 13 yards.
Vick, who rushed for 119 yards against the Rams, the most ever by a quarterback in the postseason, was held to 26 by the Eagles.
Warrick Dunn, who established a club playoff record with 142 yards rushing against the Rams, was able to gain only 59 against the Eagles.
Second in the league to Atlanta with 47 sacks during the regular season, Philadelphia sacked Vick four times Sunday and applied constant pressure.
With his usual avenues shut off, Vick was left with only one option: Go to the air. That's not a good strategy even on a good-weather day for a quarterback who has shown only average skill as a passer. On a day like Sunday, when the wind could wreak havoc with balls in the air, it was disastrous. Vick went 11 for 24 for 136 yards with one interception, zero touchdowns and a 46.5 passer rating.
"I got some velocity behind the ball, but the ball didn't tend to sail as much," Vick said. "They had Jevon Kearse on one end, and good defensive linemen on the other end keeping good containment, making sure I didn't get outside of the pocket.... They didn't allow our receivers to get off blocks and get downfield. They just played a complete game and I take my hat off to them."
Jim Mora, completing his rookie season as a head coach, wasn't about to blame his quarterback.
"You're making too much about Michael Vick," Mora told the media. "This is a team game. ... There are 11 guys out there who have to play together."
Even though Vick and his teammates were neutralized for much of the afternoon, they hung around until nearly the end, remaining within striking distance, perhaps maintaining the horrifying image of yet another Eagle collapse in the minds of both their players and their nervous fans .
Philadelphia had a four-yard scoring run by Dorsey Levens and a three-yard touchdown pass from McNabb to Chad Lewis in the first half, but the Falcons responded with a 23-yard Jay Feely field goal and a 10-yard run into the end zone by Dunn.
But whenever McNabb, who wound up completing 17 of 26 for 180 yards and two touchdowns, needed key yards, a big rush, a clutch catch, there was Westbrook. The Eagles' multifaceted back rushed 16 times for 96 yards and caught five passes for 39 yards.
David Akers kicked two field goals in the second half, from 31 and 34 yards, Lewis caught a second scoring pass, from two yards, and the Eagle defense blanked Atlanta over the final 30 minutes.
Still, Philadelphia safety Brian Dawkins insisted, it won't change the image of his team's defense.
"For some reason, we don't get respect here in Philadelphia," he said. "That's the way it's been."
It apparently hadn't sunk in yet for Dawkins that it isn't that way anymore. The streak of crushing NFC championship games is over.
A Super Bowl beckons.
For McNabb, that means dream on.
(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)
Fourth Time's the Charm
The statistical performances of Donovan McNabb in the last four NFC championship games:
*--* Year Opponent PA PC Int Yds TD Rush Result 2002 St. Louis 30 18 1 171 1 4-26 L, 29-24 2003 Tampa Bay 49 26 1 243 0 3-17 L, 27-10 2004 Carolina 22 10 3 100 0 2-10 L, 14-3 2005 Atlanta 26 17 0 180 2 10-32 W, 27-10