How do you prepare yourself for fourth and 26? You don't. Coaches don't have their teams practice fourth and 26. They punt. Fourth and 26 doesn't call for Hail Mary, the play; it calls for Hail Mary, the prayer. Nobody makes fourth and 26. Joe Montana threw the pass that resulted in The Catch, but he didn't have to make fourth and 26 that day. John Elway authored The Drive, which is perhaps the greatest down-the-field-against-the-clock procession of all time, but he didn't have to convert fourth and 26. Folks tuned into Packers-Eagles to see, more than anything else, whether Brett Favre had another magical performance in him, and instead they saw Donovan McNabb do something supernatural, something that just may define his career, and more importantly, the Eagles' season.
A weekend of playoff football already defined by brilliant quarterback play and coaches' decision-making being tested to the extreme climaxed here Sunday evening in a game that laid out before us everything from the sublime to the ridiculous. Okay, even if we agree that any recounting of Philly's 20-17 overtime victory has to begin with McNabb's fourth-and-26 pass for 28 yards to Freddie Mitchell with just over a minute to play because it kept alive their season -- not to mention the drive that forced overtime -- where do we go next?
To Packers Coach Mike Sherman's decision to go for the touchdown on fourth and goal from inside the 1 instead of taking the chip-shot field goal that would have put the Green Bay lead at 17-7? To Sherman's decision to not go for it on fourth and one just across midfield with 2½ minutes to play, and punt the ball to the Eagles when a first down might have sealed victory for the Packers? To Favre's errant heave on Green Bay's first play of overtime, which was either a miscommunication or a smart read by the Philly defense but either way was intercepted by Eagles free safety Brian Dawkins and ultimately gave the Eagles victory?
The Eagles were numb in victory, the Packers numb in defeat. It was so crushing for Favre, whose personal story of pain and resilience captivated us for three weeks, that he couldn't talk afterward. It was such an unacceptable conclusion that Darren Sharper, the Packers' cerebral and eloquent safety, could only say afterward: "It's so painful to lose like this, when you think the game is in your hands. It was in our hands. Fourth and 26? How does that happen?"
The anecdotes and explanations will take days to unravel, probably right up until Carolina comes calling on the Eagles here next Sunday in the NFC title game.
Asked what he remembered from the huddle before the fourth-and-26 deep slant pass that would wind up in his hands, Mitchell remembered McNabb saying, "Don't come back on Monday and say, 'Here's what I should have done!' "
Asked what was the call on fourth and 26, Eagles Coach Andy Reid said, "To get a first down."
Asked whether he'd rather be called "First-Down Freddie" or "Fourth-Down Freddie" from now on, Mitchell said without missing a beat: "How about FedEx Freddie, because I always deliver."
Ultimately, the guy who delivered best was McNabb. The way Favre played in the aftermath of his father's fatal heart attack led a football-crazed public to wonder if destiny was guiding him and his Packers. And in embracing Favre, we all overlooked a quarterback who is having a magical season. Many weeks before "Big" Irv Favre passed away, McNabb was scorned by Rush Limbaugh on national TV as overrated, a guy whose stature was pumped up unnecessarily because he's the black darling of a liberal media searching for a nice story about the evolution of sports' most important and most storied position.
Looks like a pretty damn stupid position to take, doesn't it? Let's see . . . Limbaugh's claim was that McNabb was riding the coattails of a great defense, right?
That Eagles' defense allowed Ahman Green to rush for 156 yards on 25 carries. That defense allowed the Packers to convert 53 percent of their third-down chances here Sunday. Meantime, McNabb rushed 11 times for 107 yards, which is only the best rushing day by a quarterback in playoff history. McNabb also completed 21 of 39 passes for 248 yards, with two touchdowns and no interceptions even though he was hounded and pounded by a Packers defense that got to him for eight sacks.
McNabb's story might not be as heartwarming as Favre's, but it might be more significant not just to the story of Philly's season after starting 0-2, but the insidious notion still out there that quarterback performances come in certain colors.
McNabb is terrible at talking about himself. He doesn't like to do it, primarily because he's not a bit self-absorbed. The guy McNabb wanted to talk about, actually go on and on about, was Favre. He called it "an honor" just to be on the same field as Favre in a playoff game. He called Favre the best quarterback of this generation. When someone asked McNabb if the way he played today, if fourth and 26 puts him in the company with Favre and Elway and Steve Young, McNabb squirmed and said, "I'm not about to put myself up there with those other guys."
And he's smart not to -- not yet. He has to win a Super Bowl to move into that company. He has to win here next week, which is the victory that has eluded McNabb and the Eagles the last two years, and win on Super Sunday. So he's not up there with the big boys at this point. But this performance ranks with most any great playoff performance. To be sacked eight times, hit another half-dozen times and still have the wherewithal to remain calm enough to save the season by running when the situation called for it, or as Andy Reid said, "firing with conviction" when the situation called for it -- that exacts greatness from a player. Scrubs don't lead their teams like McNabb did Sunday. Guys along for the ride don't draw up fourth and 26 with the season on the line, with reputations and championships at stake, and complete it under duress.
This weekend proved there's plenty of praise to share among Peyton Manning, Tom Brady, Jake Delhomme and McNabb. You come to a football cathedral, there's no telling whose performance you might leave worshiping.