In collaboration with the Sportsecyclopedia.com
The third time is not the charm for Andy Reid as his Philadelphia Eagles are beaten in the NFC Championship Game for the third straight season. This time the Eagles are knocked off by the Carolina Panthers 14-3. Ricky Manning Jr. leads the way in a suburb effort by the Panthers' defense, intercepting Donovan McNabb three times. The Panthers' first trip to the Super Bowl came just two years after a 1-15 season.
It was the beginning of a new era in Philadelphia, as the Eagles opened Lincoln Financial Field after playing at Veterans Stadium for three decades. The Eagles, led by Coach Andy Reid had come within one game of the Super Bowl in the past two seasons. Losing the 2001 NFC Championship Game to the St. Louis Rams and the 2002 NFC Championship Game to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in what was the final football game at the Vet. In their first season at the Linc, the Eagles overcame early season struggles to post a record of 12-4, winning 10 of their last 11 games to get home field in the NFC. In the Divisional Playoff round, the Eagles again showed the ability to come back as they beat the Green Bay Packers 20-17 in overtime. Late in the game, the Eagles faced 4th-and-26 when Donovan McNabb connected with a 28-yard pass to Freddie Mitchell to help set up a game-tying field goal by David Akers.
The Carolina Panthers, led by John Fox, were the NFL surprise playoff entrant, as they posted an 11-5 record to win the NFC South. The Panthers were just two years removed from going 1-15, with 15 straight losses after opening the 2001 season with a win. The Panthers were improved in 2002, going 7-9, but they were hardly seen as a Super Bowl contender with journeyman quarterback Jake Delhomme leading the way. The Panthers' journey to Super Bowl XXXVIII in Houston in the playoffs started with a 29-10 Wild Card win over the Dallas Cowboys. A week later, they would shock the St. Louis Rams 29-23 on Delhomme’s nice 69-yard pass to Steve Smith on the first play in double overtime.
The Panthers moved the ball into Eagles' territory on the game’s first drive but chose to punt from the Eagles' 32, hoping to get a jump-start on the game of field position. The Eagles employed a similar game plan, punting from Panthers 36. The news for the Eagles was worse as Donovan McNabb suffered a rib injury on a third down play when Will Witherspoon sacked him. The teams continued to trade punts as the first quarter ended without a score. Carolina began the second quarter with a 79-yard drive that ended with a 24-yard pass from Jake Delhomme to Mushin Muhammad. The Eagles responded with a lengthy drive that resulted in a 41-yard field goal by David Akers. After the Eagles forced a three and out, McNabb had a chance to get more before the end of the first half but had a pass intercepted by Ricky Manning Jr. at the Carolina 40 with 50 seconds left. The Panthers could not convert the pick into points but were happy to go into the break with a 7-3 lead.
The Eagles got the ball to start the third quarter and moved the ball effectively into the red zone. However, for the second time, Donovan McNabb was picked off by Ricky Manning Jr. at the Carolina 14-yard line. After the Panthers' drive stalled, the Eagles finally got the ball at their own 36, looking to take control of the game. Once again, McNabb found the wrong man, as Manning victimized the Eagles for the third time at the 50, returning the ball to the Philadelphia 37. This time Carolina cashed into the interception, as DeShaun Foster gave them a 14-3 lead with a one-yard run. Now facing desperation, the Eagles needed Donovan McNabb to make the big play, but his ribs continued to hurt as their next two drives ended with punts.
Now in full control, the Panthers pinned the Eagles down at their own eight after taking five minutes off the clock to begin the fourth quarter. When the Eagles' offense came on the field, it was Koy Detmer, not Donovan McNabb, standing under center. McNabb had a rough day, completing 10 of 22 passes for 100 yards with three picks and four sacks. Detmer moved the ball down to the Panthers' 11 but, like McNabb, had his drive end with an interception by Bobbie Williams. It would be Philadelphia’s last gasp as the Panthers went on to win 14-3.
The Panthers would lose a tight battle with the New England Patriots 32-29 in Super Bowl XXXVIII as Adam Vinatieri won a Super Bowl with a walk-off field goal for the second time in three years. The Eagles finally broke through the following year as they beat the Atlanta Falcons 27-10 to reach Super Bowl XXXIX in Jacksonville, where they were defeated by the Patriots 24-21.