Failure is familiar for Philly fanatics

THE BALTIMORE SUN

ED RENDELL, the governor of Pennsylvania, is a serious pro football fan - serious enough to take part in a weekly roundtable discussion that airs on a Philadelphia cable TV station after Eagles games.

With both of his state's teams hosting playoff games last weekend, Rendell lived out a fan's dream and attended both. On Saturday, he watched the Pittsburgh Steelers barely survive the New York Jets in overtime. On Sunday, he watched the Eagles - his beloved hometown team - knock out the Minnesota Vikings.

On Monday, he sat for an interview with Ray Didinger, a senior NFL Films producer.

"We talked about the difference between the fans in Pittsburgh and Philadelphia, and [Rendell] was really astute," Didinger recalled yesterday. "He pointed out that when the Jets were lining up field goals to win [which missed], the feeling in the stadium was, 'He's going to miss. We'll find a way.' But [Rendell] said if the same scene had taken place in Philadelphia, the fans would go, 'I can't watch. We're going to lose.' "

That reflexive negativity - the belief that bad things are going to happen - is a product of almost a half-century of sports frustrations in Philadelphia. (With a few successes mixed in, but never mind those.) And that negativity provides the subtext of Sunday's NFC championship game between the Eagles and Atlanta Falcons.

Yes, a trip to the Super Bowl is on the line. But so is an entire city's sanity.

The Eagles have lost three straight NFC title games, including the past two at home when they were favored. Another home loss Sunday, in a year when they're clearly the class of the NFC, would lump the Eagles with the Buffalo Bills, speed skater Dan Jansen and anyone else remembered for faithfully faltering when it matters.

Stakes don't get any higher in a city where the Eagles rank first in sports fans' hearts and minds.

"People are really excited, but also really scared," said Didinger, a former Philadelphia newspaper columnist who still resides in the area and hosts a weekly radio show. "They're optimistic, as they should be. But they know their history. They expect to have their hearts ripped out, thrown to the ground and stomped on."

That was not always the case. Philadelphia was once known as a tough sports town, the place that booed Santa Claus, but it wasn't Loserville. The Eagles won an NFL title in 1960. The 76ers won NBA titles in 1967 and 1983. The Flyers won back-to-back Stanley Cups in 1974 and 1975. The Phillies won a World Series in 1980.

But a broad pattern of high-profile failure also materialized. The Phillies famously blew a 6 1/2 -game lead in the last 12 days of the 1964 National League season. They also lost the World Series in 1983 and 1993, and three straight NL Championship Series in the 1970s.

The Sixers lost to Portland as heavy favorites in the 1977 NBA Finals, and also lost in the 1980 and 1982 Finals. The Eagles lost to the Raiders in the Super Bowl in January 1981. The Flyers lost five Stanley Cup Finals from 1976 to 1997.

Lately, the trickle has become a torrent. The Sixers lost in the 2001 NBA Finals. The Hawks of Saint Joseph's University fell just short of the Final Four last spring. Smarty Jones, a horse from Philadelphia Park, faltered in the Belmont Stakes just yards shy of winning the 2004 Triple Crown. The Eagles lost three title games.

"The fans here are the most passionate I've ever seen. They want to win so bad ... because they haven't," said Vaughn Hebron, a Baltimore native who played in the NFL and now owns a pair of Philadelphia-area sports training centers.

The Steelers, who host the New England Patriots in the AFC title game Sunday, have put Pittsburgh's fans through comparable torment in recent years with a 1-3 record in championship games under coach Bill Cowher. (The one win was followed by a Super Bowl loss.) But really, there's no comparison. The Steelers won four Super Bowls in the 1970s. Their fans know good things can happen. Eagles fans don't.

Some believe the environment of semi-hysterical, surround-sound negativity produces pressure that impacts players. Can losing become a self-fulfilling prophecy?

"Possibly," Didinger said, "although I don't think Smarty Jones was reading the papers or listening to the talk shows."

The Eagles' players probably aren't either this week, not that they can avoid the situation.

"Oh, they're totally aware of everything," Hebron said. "As a player, you wonder how many chances you're going to get at a Super Bowl."

Such thinking probably won't impact the Eagles if they take an early lead, or if the breaks go their way. But if they fall behind, or if the Falcons get an early break, watch out.

"It's liable to revive all those prior losses and drain the emotion out of the stadium," Didinger said.

Fans are staging a weeklong love-fest of parties and pep rallies to ward off the ghosts.

"Eagles pennants are flying from car antennas and people are really up, but it's a false bravado," Didinger said. "Underneath, they're fearful of building themselves up for another disappointment. When I go around town, they approach me and say, 'Yeah! This is the year! We're going to do it!' Then they pause and quietly say, 'We are, aren't we?' "

NFC TITLE GAME

Atlanta (12-5) at Philadelphia (14-3)

Time: 3 p.m., Sunday

TV: Chs. 45, 5

Line: Eagles by 5

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

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