QB injures ribs, struggles again in title game
PHILADELPHIA -- Donovan McNabb was having trouble breathing and throwing, yet he wanted to remain in the game -- even after a second hard hit sidelined him for good.
Given the way the Philadelphia Eagles' receivers were playing, it might not have made any difference.
It wasn't the separated rib cartilage or the four sacks that doomed McNabb's third straight attempt to win the NFC championship game. His receivers' mistakes -- drops and mistaken routes that resulted in interceptions -- loomed large in the Eagles' 14-3 loss to the Carolina Panthers on Sunday night.
"I won't say we let him down," said receiver Todd Pinkston, who was held without a catch. "We let ourselves down. We didn't make the plays when the opportunities were there."
The stats show that McNabb completed just 10 of 22 passes for 100 yards with three interceptions -- all by Panthers rookie Ricky Manning. But one of the picks was jarred from the hands of receiver James Thrash, and McNabb diplomatically described the other two as "miscommunication" with receivers Thrash and Pinkston.
Running back Duce Staley and Pinkston also had big drops that stymied promising scoring chances in the first half. Freddie Mitchell had four of the five catches by Philadelphia's wideouts.
"We had great plays. We drove down and had either miscues or mistakes, just not being on the same page," McNabb said. "We just can't win any games like that."
Of course, the ribs prevented McNabb from erasing all those mistakes with the type of fourth-quarter comeback he engineered last week against Green Bay. He watched the final 12 minutes from the sideline as backup Koy Detmer directed the team.
"Donovan would have continued to play until he passed out," coach Andy Reid said. "But I wasn't going to go there."
McNabb was sacked eight times last week by the Packers, and the most painful one this week came when Mike Rucker burst quickly through the line, sending McNabb tumbling backward onto the turf in the second quarter. Linebacker Greg Favors, unsure if the play was over, then jumped on and sent McNabb into an awkward roll, bending McNabb's left leg into the quarterback's chest.
Reid said an official told him that no personal foul was called because McNabb was considered down by contact from his own blocker, not from Rucker's hit.
McNabb walked off the field under his own power, holding his rib cage with his left hand. Detmer entered the game for one play before McNabb returned to huge cheers.
At the time of his injury, McNabb was 6-for-10 for 58 yards. On his first play back, he completed a 10-yard pass to Mitchell to set up a field goal.
McNabb was sacked again on the Eagles' next possession, which ended with his first interception in 84 attempts. In a hurry in the two-minute drill, McNabb tried to hit Thrash, but Manning read it better than the receiver.
McNabb was late coming out of the tunnel at halftime. Detmer was warming up on the sideline just before kickoff, but McNabb entered the game on Philadelphia's first drive of the second half.
McNabb said it was "rough breathing" and that he couldn't get full rotation with shoulders and hips. But, he added: "In this game, you've got to give everything you have and leave it out there on the field."
The first series of the second half ended when Manning made a great play to step in front of Pinkston -- another "miscommunication" -- killing the drive inside Carolina's 20.
It was McNabb's last great scoring chance. He was done for the night after he was driven into the ground by blitzing safety Jarrod Cooper on the Eagles' final play of the third quarter. McNabb slowly walked off the field, again clutching his ribs. Detmer finished the game, with Reid overruling McNabb willingness to return.
"I continued to say I was ready," McNabb said.
The Eagles, aiming for their first Super Bowl berth in 23 years, became the first team to lose three straight conference championship games since Dallas from 1980-82. The reason, more than any other, is that they've yet to get that special championship game performance from their very special quarterback.
McNabb ran just twice for 10 yards, a week after setting an NFL playoff record with 107 yards rushing against the Packers. Reid said he went to a more conservative approach in the third quarter because of McNabb's injury.
In three NFC championship games, McNabb is 54-for-101 for 514 yards with one touchdown and five interceptions, and just nine rushes for 53 yards.
"Being the competitor I am, it's just rough to swallow," McNabb said.
When pressed about the receivers, McNabb and Reid took the responsibility themselves.
"Those guys have made plays before," Reid said. "I've got to find a way to get them open."
But no one would be surprised if McNabb is throwing to someone else the next time the Eagles get this far.
Copyright 2004 by The Associated Press
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