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Eagles finally punch ticket

After three straight defeats, Philadelphia claims NFC championship

PHILADELPHIA -- The Philadelphia Eagles finally figured out how to advance past the NFC Championship game. After losing three successive times, the Eagles posted a 27-10 victory over Atlanta yesterday, punching a ticket to the Super Bowl for the first time since 1981.

The Eagles prepared for this moment by allowing several starters to recharge themselves in the final two weeks of the regular season, then leaving it to the wintry conditions to disconcert the Falcons while keeping the heat on Atlanta quarterback Michael Vick.

Donovan McNabb, injured while the Eagles were being eliminated in two previous seasons, entered this game in relatively good condition, and led the way to five scoring drives.

"It's a great feeling," McNabb said. "We know what happened the last three years, being close but never able to pull it out. It's a special feeling but there is no reason for it to stop now. There is no relief really, for me. I will feel relief after the Super Bowl. I set a goal to win the Super Bowl and that's where I'm going with it. We'll enjoy this but we're not done."

The Eagles capitalized on a regular-season record that included 13 wins in their first 14 games, giving them a chance to begin early preparations for the playoffs.

The Falcons, 11-5 during the regular season, have been accustomed to the artificial conditions of a domed stadium and sunshine on the way in and out. But Atlanta clearly was not feeling at home in the open, frigid air, with snowplows on the streets, and strong winds. Though Vick is the league's most elusive and potentially dynamic quarterback, he easily was contained by the Eagles.

Philadelphia missed a chance to take the lead on its first possession, faking a 50-yard field goal and failing to convert after a 3-yard completion from Koy Detmer to Chad Lewis fell 4 yards short of a first down.

But the Eagles set the tone for the game by scoring on their next possession, capitalizing on a 5-yard, hands-to-the-face penalty on DeAngelo Hall. Philadelphia then covered 65 yards on the next four plays, 4- and 36-yard runs by Brian Westbrook, a 21-yard pass from McNabb to L.J. Smith, and Dorsey Levens's 4-yard scoring run.

Atlanta's Jay Feely kicked a 23-yard field goal after Vick was sacked for a 2-yard loss by Hollis Thomas on third down at the Eagles' 2-yard line. The drive included an interception negated by an Eagle holding penalty and a 5-yard run by T.J. Duckett on fourth and 1 on the final play of the first quarter. The Eagles increased the lead to 14-3 on a 3-yard pass from McNabb to Lewis. McNabb fueled the drive with a 13-yard completion to Freddie Mitchell on third and 11, and a 45-yarder to Greg Lewis. The Falcons then capitalized on a roughing-the-passer penalty, followed by a 31-yard pass from Vick to Alge Crumpler, and a 10-yard scoring run by Warrick Dunn to cut the deficit to 14-10 on the final play before the two-minute warning.

"We were able to come down and score and go up by a touchdown," Eagles coach Andy Reid said. "We scored again and they were forced to throw the ball. The front was doing a good job and we were able get pressure [on Vick] without having to bring too many people."

After halftime, the Eagles took control.

McNabb keyed the Eagles' third scoring drive with an 8-yard run on third and 2, then went to Westbrook, who ran for 8, 12, and 11 yards. The drive stalled as Westbrook fumbled a handoff and McNabb underthrew a receiver, with the ball nearly picked off by Bryan Scott. David Akers finished the drive with a 31-yard field goal. Akers added a 34-yard field goal late in the third quarter, capping a drive that was set up by Brian Dawkins's interception return to the Atlanta 11.

The Falcons stalled on their next two possessions, the Eagles clinching the result with a 2-yard pass from McNabb to Chad Lewis for a 27-10 lead with 3:21 remaining. Vick's final two significant plays were a 5-yard sack followed by an incompletion on third and 11 early in the fourth.

"The place erupted with about two minutes left," Reid said. "After the last touchdown, the players started getting caught up in that part. It makes it more worthwhile to have had to do it four times. There is good and there is bad to [losing three straight finals]. You have to mentally get over the big hurdle by winning and knowing you can do it."

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