No town in sports is as heavy as Philadelphia. It's the city of dead weight, of bad memories, of easily lost faith and inbred accusation. Philly fans make fatalistic Bostonians look like they just left a positive-thinking seminar. Every athlete here, especially the perpetually overburdened Eagles, might as well wear saddlebags like a race horse. The bigger the game, the more "weight" of hometown negativity must be carried into the contest. When a trip to the Super Bowl is at stake, each Iggle might as well have a bowling ball strapped to each ankle.
They could've told you. They knew: Call it precognition. The result had to be this way -- a raw, futile, disgusting choke job. Donovan McNabb would throw three interceptions, tying his worst total ever, and all of the picks thrown to a rookie. By the end, McNabb would be so battered he could not play the fourth quarter. And, for the third straight year, the Eagles would lose the NFC championship game. No trip to the Super Bowl. No NFL title for the 43rd straight year. Worst of all, the Panthers, whoever they are, walk off with the ugly 14-3 victory.
They could have told you. Who are "they"? Why, the Eagles' fans, of course. Give them credit. They never booed until the end of the third quarter. But their lust for judgment, their blighted anticipation of misfortune and their ominous silence hung over this game. For vast chunks of a close battle, when their cheers were desperately needed, the Eagles crowd simply held its breath and awaited its fate. You can't blame them. It's tradition. It's Eagles history. It's a whole city's family heirloom called disaster.
The possibility that the Panthers are not only as good as the Eagles but better will not sit well here. Wait and see. This wasn't an Eagles choke. It was a Carolina win. But one aided by the generations of bad sports karma that are piled triple-deep here.
The healthy Panthers, with their pounding running game and bludgeoning defense, dominated both lines of scrimmage. Carolina's Stephen Davis had 76 yards on 19 carries. McNabb was injured and had rib X-rays in the second quarter before being knocked out. Will that be fully credited?
Rather than being four-point favorites in the NFC championship game Sunday, the Eagles probably should have been a slight underdog. After all, playing at home in Philly ought to be worth a touchdown to the visitor. Factor in one final twist of fate. On this raw evening, the Eagles had a chance to become only the second team to lose three straight NFC championship games.
Surely it is no coincidence that of all the cities that have a franchise in all four major sports, Philadelphia has gone the longest -- 21 years -- without a world championship. That's a 0-for-81 seasons streak, as everyone here reminds everyone else. Add to the mix that the Eagles, who last won an NFL championship in 1960, have been to only one Super Bowl and did not win it. Or, as far too many defeats here are described, "Dey choked."
Maybe you had to be here last year, when the home crowd turned on the Eagles in their 27-10 loss to Tampa Bay, to sense how much anxiety always lurks. No crowd cheers louder before the game starts, goes silent more quickly at the first sign of bad karma or turns to its famous "boo Santa" heritage more quickly in a crisis.
Perhaps the headlines in the Philadelphia Inquirer, a distinguished paper, gave a hint of the tone. "Finally?" was the one-word banner on A1. Why not just put "Probably Not" in parenthesis? The first words of the lead story: "We are gluttons for punishment. Frustration is our birthright." Thanks, we needed that. On the sports page, the headline read, "It's On Them." Over time, a city's media reflects its population, not the opposite. Headline writers don't try to thwart the will of 5 million people. They simply try to reflect it, whether consciously or not. Perhaps you noticed that headline the day Joe Gibbs returned to Washington: "Return of The King." Do all the sociology you want. It's warranted.
In Philly, the names mentioned most are the names of the Near-Miss Men: Dan Marino, Dan Fouts, Fran Tarkenton, Bud Grant, Marv Levy, Marty Schottenheimer and Chuck Knox. Admit it, you'd forgotten Knox. Not here. He never won a Super Bowl and if he dares come inside the city limits, somebody will remind him.
The Eagles faced a double whammy in this game because the Panthers -- the Cardiac Cats -- are a little-known, nothing-to-lose group that was 1-15 only two years ago. Everybody in the NFL knows how tough the Panthers are. Their running game with Davis (1,444) is a blunt instrument, their defense well above average, their special teams first rate and, finally, their quarterback, Jake Delhomme, very underrated.
The Panthers arrived here light as a feather with eight of their 13 wins this season coming in their final possession -- in the fourth quarter, overtime or, last week, in double overtime on the road in St. Louis. On Friday, fans even gave them an old-fashioned pep rally. Nobody here remembered to hold one for the Eagles.
Carolina's goal was evident from the start. Play close to the vest, eat the clock, stay in the game and take its chances in the fourth quarter, even if Philadelphia had won 11 of its last 12 games and was generally seen, coast to coast, as the superior team. After all, Carolina might win or the Eagles, with the help of their fans, might simply lose.
That black-cat moment arrived early in the second quarter. Delhomme lofted an ugly under-thrown pass into the middle of the end zone, where Muhsin Muhammad was covered by two of the Eagles' best veteran players, Brian Dawkins and Bobby Taylor. Muhammad simply stopped. Both Eagles fell down or slipped. Suddenly, Muhammad was all alone and caught the 24-yard touchdown pass as easily as if it were a warm-up toss. The crowd sat stunned. Perfect defense, coupled with a poor pass that might have turned into an interception, was suddenly a 7-0 Carolina lead. Now is that fair? No, but it's very ill-fated Iggle.
The mood of this game, as well as the score, changed radically in a 10-minute span that began in the minute of the first half. Though the Panters led, 7-3, the Eagles were driving near midfield when rookie cornerback Ricky Manning Jr., jumped in front of a slant route and made a marvelous, improbable one-handed interception. On the previous series, McNabb had been sacked and lay on the ground with a rib injury. In the NFL, that description is so vague that it might be anything. Was there a connection between the injury and the interception?
On the first drive of the third quarter, the Eagles reached the Panthers 18-yard line only to see McNabb throw the ball directly to Manning again. This time, if Manning hadn't required a small jump for his second interception, he might have had a long return. Instead of getting a field goal, McNabb's aura was punctured again. In the Eagles' very next series, McNabb hit James Thrash in the chest with a perfect pass only to see a big hit from Mike Minter jar the ball straight up into the air. Who was there for a gift interception? Manning.
What these Eagles lost was just a game to a first-rate opponent. But that's too bland. It just won't do. On other teams, in other towns, "wait 'til next year" is a call of hope. Here, it's a dirge. Because, as this game proved, with its fresh heaping of agony piled on top of the defeats of the last two seasons, next year can always be worse.