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Intimidation is no factor

Falcons' defensive line homing in

FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. -- The frosty weather and even frostier reception the Falcons expect tomorrow in Philadelphia could not have seemed more distant Thursday.

The Falcons prepared for the NFC Championship game on dry grass under a cloudless sky with temperatures in the 50s.

Off the field, they could bask in the adoration of a less than demanding local populace happy they got this far.


For several men central to the Falcons' chances against the Eagles, though, the far different atmosphere at Lincoln Financial Field will not be intimidating in the least. It will feel like home.

Meet one of the league's best defensive lines. With 36 sacks, the line accounted for more than three-quarters of Atlanta's NFL-high 48, one more than the Eagles had. It is one well suited to what could be a slog through snowy trenches.

Patrick Kerney, who has 13 sacks and has emerged as one of the league's best all-around ends, grew up in Newtown, Pa., idolizing Reggie White and tormenting Eagles opponents at Veterans Stadium.

"I was one of those people saying things about players," Kerney said. "That's probably why I got shipped off to boarding school [in Connecticut]. I know what the fans are like. I was one of them."

Rod Coleman, whose 11 sacks were second in the league among tackles, grew up in Philadelphia as a Giants fan, so he knows all about rubbing Eagles supporters the wrong way.

"If we win, they'll be throwing everything at us and at them; everyone will be ducking," said Coleman, who was set to join the Giants as a free agent last winter before a late recruiting effort by Atlanta.

Tackle Ed Jasper, a key run-stopper, played his first two seasons, 1997 and '98, for the Eagles. Jasper, who grew up in rural Texas, laughed as he recalled his first day in Philly. He stood on a downtown sidewalk as he watched two men who had robbed a fast-food restaurant run toward him, being chased by policemen.

"I was thinking, `I hope these dudes don't grab me and put a gun to my head,' " he said. "Luckily, the guys ran on by me. Welcome to the big city."

Then there is reserve end Travis Hall, a Falcon since 1995, who had three regular-season sacks and one last Saturday against the Rams, as did Coleman and starting end Brady Smith.

No, Hall is not from Philly. But he did grow up in Kenai, Alaska, where he hunted moose for food and sometimes hiked through knee-high snow to find wood to chop for heat.

Hall and his friends will be on the hunt tomorrow for Donovan McNabb, and it is their knack of chasing down quarterbacks that is the key to the Falcons' rise on defense from 32d in 2003 to 14th. Their ability to generate a rush without help allows Atlanta to limit risky blitzes and maximize players in coverage.

"It feels good to know you don't have to cover forever," rookie cornerback DeAngelo Hall said. "You can just sit back there, cover the minimum and someone will be in that quarterback's face."

The left side of Coleman and Kerney will be a daunting test for the Eagles, especially with right tackle Jon Runyan at less than full strength because of a knee injury. A key to the Eagles' victory over the Vikings last weekend was Minnesota's inability to pressure McNabb. The Falcons' front four is eager to be counted upon again and eager to send Eagles fans home unhappy, just as a teenage Kerney was after consecutive home playoff losses in 1989 and '90 by White and his other heroes on Buddy Ryan's defense. He knows a new generation of fans is waiting for him.

"I expect," Kerney said, "the same warm, loving reception for us."

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