Mitchell's grab saves Eagles' season

Donovan McNabb and Freddie Mitchell kept Philly's hopes alive with a huge fourth-down conversion.

Updated: January 12, 2004, 12:21 PM ET
By Len Pasquarelli | ESPN.com

PHILADELPHIA -- The athlete affectionately known to this city as The Answer earns his keep in shorts and sneakers, wears tattoos instead of getting tattooed by opposing safeties, and is more famous for his crossover dribble than a crossing route.

But in the last of this weekend's four divisional round playoff games here Sunday night -- a contest that will elicit more than its share of second-guesses and should prompt plenty of questions for both of the coaches involved -- the Philadelphia Eagles couldn't count on Allen Iverson to answer the call on a fourth-and-26 with just 1:12 remaining.

Freddie Mitchell
AP PhotoFreddie Mitchell pumps his fist after his fourth-down catch in the fourth quarter.
So instead, wide receiver Freddie Mitchell became The Answer Man, with a catch that was more like an exclamation point.

"Maybe tomorrow, when I wake up and think about it, I'll say to myself, 'Wow, it was fourth-and-26, man,' but that hasn't sunk in yet," acknowledged Mitchell after the Eagles capped off what was arguably the most incredible divisional round in NFL history with a 20-17 overtime victory against the stunned Green Bay Packers. "When it's happening, you aren't thinking about it, because no one wants to think about a situation like that. I mean, there aren't a lot of routes in the playbook for converting something like that."

Seven plays after the biggest reception of Mitchell's three-year career, David Akers hit a 37-yard field goal to send the contest into an extra stanza. And then, after an interception by free safety Brian Dawkins, when Brett Favre tossed up an unanswered prayer on the Packers' only snap of the overtime, Akers nailed a 31-yarder to send Philadelphia into its third straight NFC championship game.

Philadelphia will host the upstart Carolina Panthers next Sunday.

The field goal meant that the four divisional games were decided by a total of 19 points. For only the second time since the NFL adopted the current 12-team format in 1990, two road teams won and moved on to the conference championship matchups. It was also the first time since 1990 that the divisional round featured two overtime contests.

If the third time in the NFC title game is a charm for the Eagles, it still might not measure up to the charmed life Philadelphia led here Sunday night. Down 14-0 in the first quarter, and with quarterback Donovan McNabb struggling as he has in some other playoff appearances, even some of the true believers at Lincoln Financial Field were battling a sense of ominous déjà vu.

But then McNabb, who accounted for 355 total yards and established a new postseason league record for rushing yards by a quarterback (107), found himself. More importantly, he found Mitchell on the game's signature play, a 28-yard hookup on the fourth-and-26 play.

The completion came with Philadelphia in a four-wide set and the Packers, who had shut down the Eagles' passing game much of the evening, in a double zone. Unlike much of the evening, when Green Bay blitzed McNabb and sacked him eight times, coordinator Ed Donatell played it a little too safe on fourth down. Mitchell crossed to the middle of the field, settled down in the deep zone, and McNabb had more than sufficient time to deliver the ball to him.

Actually, the pass barely sailed over the fingers of Packers "nickel" cornerback Bhawoh Jue, and got to Mitchell a nanosecond before strong safety Marques Anderson crashed into him. Philadelphia might have gotten a generous spot from the officials, but it was incidental to the fact the Eagles converted on a last-gasp play, a snap that seemed it would be the final offensive play of their season.

Said Packers cornerback Mike McKenzie: "We were playing a soft coverage. We were trying to be very cautious, and play it easy, and that's what hurt us. It's disappointing."

Typical of his persona, Mitchell, garbed in a jacket of striped but indistinguishable fur, took the offensive as he stepped to the dais for his postgame interview. He praised the play of McNabb, alluding to the early-season criticisms of the Eagles quarterback, and suggested there is no better player at crunch time. Mitchell even took a backhand swipe at the Packers, and the emotional run they have been on, hinting that perhaps it really is the Eagles who are a team of destiny.

Most people who watch us, they ought to know that we can make the big play, OK?. We talk about it all the time.
Freddie Mitchell, Eagles WR on Philly's receiving corps

For much of Sunday, they played like a team of density, but McNabb bailed them out and the defense made just enough timely plays. The first came near the end of the first half, when Packers coach Mike Sherman eschewed a chip shot field goal on fourth-and-goal from the one-yard line. Slowed in his own backfield, when Eagles defensive tackle Corey Simon drove tackle Mark Tauscher into him, Ahman Green was stopped for no gain.

And then in the overtime, Favre read a strong safety blitz and overthrew wide receiver Javon Walker badly, with Dawkins making the interception and returning it 35 yards to the Green Bay 34-yard line. The winning field goal by Akers came six plays later.

In an uncharacteristic moment, Favre did not appear for a postgame interview. Sherman tried to explain the interception but, no matter his effort, it still wasn't the same thing as having Favre review it. Plus, the Packers coach had plenty of other decisions to explain, including his decision to punt on a fourth-and-one in the final two minutes, when the Green Bay blockers had been dominating the line of scrimmage.

Several of the Green Bay veterans wondered aloud about that decision, and seemed all but incredulous that they lost a game in which they rushed for 210 yards.

Asked what he was thinking on the fourth-and-26 play, Eagles coach Andy Reid smiled and replied: "Get a first down."

His team did just that, accomplishing the feat against long odds on Mitchell's huge catch on the fourth-down play. Under pressure all night, the play was one of few where McNabb actually had time to survey the field, and where there weren't a lot of hands in his face.

In fact, McNabb had just enough time to massage the pass, putting the ball on the back shoulder of Mitchell, to keep it away from the fast-closing Green Bay defenders.

"You never want to be in that position but, hey, Freddie made a big play," McNabb said.

In his postgame comments, Akers hung on Mitchell the new nickname "First-Down Freddie." Mitchell has, in fact, been called many things in his three seasons here. Things like cocky, abrasive and underachieving. But on Sunday, when called upon, he delivered big-time.

After two seasons of making virtually no big plays at all -- so woeful was Mitchell in the summer of 2002 that the Eagles were forced to sign free agent Antonio Freeman to fill the important No. 3 wideout spot -- the 2001 first-rounder had 35 catches for 498 yards and two touchdowns this season. That might not sound like much until one considers that the former UCLA star totaled only 33 catches, 388 yards and one touchdown in his first two professional seasons.

Mitchell plays with a chip on his shoulder and, standing in the corridor outside of the Eagles' locker room late Sunday evening, he took some delight in chiding reporters who have suggested the Philadelphia receiving corps is merely mediocre.

"Most people who watch us, they ought to know that we can make the big play, OK?" Mitchell said. "We talk about it all the time."

And on Sunday, with the Eagles' championship aspirations slipping away again and the throaty Philadelphia fans readying their pipes, Mitchell turned words into deed with a play that salvaged his team's Super Bowl chances.

Indeed, when the Eagles were questioning if another season of dreams would conclude in disaster, he was the guy with the answer.

Len Pasquarelli is a senior NFL writer for ESPN.com.

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