Donovan McNabb has a chip on his shoulder the size of the Liberty Bell, and only a Super Bowl invitation will knock it off.
After three consecutive losses in the NFC championship game, the Philadelphia Eagles' quarterback will be back at the epicenter of disaster - or grandeur - again this week.
Like the distraught Philadelphia fans who are consumed with their football team each week, McNabb's patience with the team's Super Bowl quest appears to be running out. Immediately after the Eagles earned a date with the Atlanta Falcons for Sunday's title game, he sounded like a man bearing a heavy load.
"I am looking forward to it," he said Sunday when the Eagles beat the Minnesota Vikings, 27-14. "I don't have any more room for any more added pressure on my shoulders. Ever since I started this thing, it seems more pressure has been put on my shoulders."
When McNabb started "this thing" as the second pick of the 1999 draft, he was booed by Philadelphia fans, many of whom preferred running back Ricky Williams. Although the relationship improved steadily as he progressed into one of the NFL's elite quarterbacks, the six-year veteran is not oblivious to criticism.
He thought he had someone to share the burden of expectation with in receiver Terrell Owens this season. But when Owens tore two ankle ligaments in Week 15, it all fell back on McNabb.
Last week, before the divisional playoff game against Minnesota, McNabb had this to say about pressure: "I love pressure. I love to step out there and everybody is standing on their feet with their mouth wide open to find out what I'm going to do next."
Yet, when the pressure has burned most intensely in his Eagles career, McNabb has not always been at his best. In the three championship game losses, he has completed a weak 53.5 percent of his passes for only one touchdown and five interceptions.
There were injury allowances, of course. In 2002, when he came back from a broken ankle to make the playoffs, he was wildly erratic against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. A year ago, when he suffered cracked ribs in the first half against the Carolina Panthers, he completed just 10 of 22 throws with three picks before leaving the game in the fourth quarter.
McNabb's performance in his other seven playoff games, meanwhile, was exemplary. He completed 61.4 percent in those games for 12 touchdowns and only three interceptions.
Indeed, the burden of championship game guilt does not fall solely on McNabb. In their three championship losses, the Eagles have allowed 10 sacks and given the ball away nine times. The defense, meanwhile, has totaled only one sack and one take-away in those three games, a staggering gap that McNabb hasn't been able to close by himself.
Will Sunday be different? McNabb says it will because the team is better "in just about each position."
"I think as a unit we are better," he said. "Guys have learned from the experience from last year. We brought some new guys in here to help us get to where we want to go. Mentally, we're in a different situation now, because we've been looking forward to it."
Because the Falcons' defensive line recorded a league-high 48 sacks this season, it's likely Eagles coach Andy Reid will give McNabb maximum protection, as he often did against Minnesota. The Vikings' only sack came when McNabb scrambled out of the pocket and ran out of bounds for no gain.
McNabb made one glaring mistake against Minnesota. It came at the end of the first half, when the Eagles had the ball on the Vikings' 9. Instead of throwing for the end zone with 10 seconds left, he threw a short route to Dorsey Levens, who couldn't reach the end zone. The half ended and the Eagles failed to pad a 21-7 lead.
Reid took the blame for the call.
"I could have given him a better play than what I did," Reid said. "I gave him a play with underneath routes. It wasn't smart on my part."
McNabb had career highs in completion percentage (.640), passing yards (3,875), touchdowns (31) and passer rating (104.7), but his best season ultimately will be judged on one more shot at the Super Bowl against a third straight NFC South opponent.
"I think as an offense, it all starts with the quarterback, and my confidence is high and the rest of the guys seem to follow along with that," he said.
NFC TITLE GAME
Atlanta (12-5) at Philadelphia (14-3)
Time: 3 p.m. Sunday
TV: Chs. 45, 5
Line: Eagles by 4 1/2
AFC TITLE GAME
New England (15-2) at Pittsburgh (16-1)
Time: 6:30 p.m. Sunday
TV: Chs. 13, 9
Line: Patriots by 3