Thinking positive, Eagles go forth

THE BALTIMORE SUN

PHILADELPHIA -- Staring down a game that might define him as a coach, the Philadelphia Eagles' Andy Reid is keeping his sense of humor -- and his team is following suit.

The cool demeanor displayed last week by the Eagles was in contrast to a year ago, when a visibly uptight squad let questions surrounding past failures lead to a new one in a 14-3 home loss to the Carolina Panthers in the NFC championship game.

Now the Eagles, who host the Atlanta Falcons today at Lincoln Financial Field for the right to go to the Super Bowl, could not be more easygoing.

Three consecutive NFC title game losses might have forced a lesser team into a bunker mentality, cutting itself off from the outside world and the accompanying negativity, but the Eagles have all but laughed at their situation and have done nothing to stop the dialogue.

Asked how he dealt with past failures, Reid said, "I went to Hawaii. Heck, you are disappointed after every loss, and that's the way it works. You get over it, and you get back to business and you get yourself right."

Reid really did go to Hawaii to coach the NFC's Pro Bowl team, but he is looking to hand that honor to Falcons coach Jim Mora, who is attempting to become the fifth rookie coach to lead his team to the Super Bowl.

The game plan put forth by Reid centers less on strategy and more on psyche. After the Eagles beat the Minnesota Vikings last Sunday, Reid persuaded his players to focus on the good and make fun of the bad.

"We've had a special season, things have really been moving in a positive direction," Eagles quarterback Donovan McNabb said. "Guys have been stepping up and making big plays for us so the confidence is definitely there, but most importantly, the energy level is there."

What about those title game losses? "I just kind of gathered my two dogs, and we just sat in a dark room, rolled the film and just sat there and watched it together," McNabb said. "My dogs talked to me and told me to keep my head up, and I think I was all right."

Optimism is everywhere for the Eagles, despite facing one of the NFL's hardest quarterbacks to contain in the Falcons' Michael Vick.

Vick rushed for 119 yards and threw two touchdown passes in the Falcons' 47-17 win over the St. Louis Rams eight days ago. But unlike previous years, the Eagles' defense features more speed, a good attribute when trying to contain a player who rushed for 902 yards this season.

Eagles linebacker Dhani Jones, end Jevon Kearse and cornerbacks Sheldon Brown and Lito Sheppard are all faster than the starters they replaced last season, helping Philadelphia allow just 15.9 points a game, which tied New England for second in the league.

Philadelphia, with its elaborate blitz packages that includes overloading one side of the field with a safety, linebacker and cornerback and bringing all three, also finished second in the NFL with 47 sacks.

Most importantly, the defense is more physical than in the past, allowing four 100-yard rushers (with one coming in a game when the starters played sparingly).

"We might not be doing the right thing 100 percent of the time, but you bet we're going to be flying around 100 percent of the time," Sheppard said.

Equally impressive is the Falcons' defense, which might help them become the third straight NFC South team to reach the Super Bowl.

Atlanta's defensive line resembles that of its division predecessors, matching the stout middle of the 2003 Carolina Panthers and the speed off the edge of the 2002 Tampa Bay Buccaneers. The Eagles combined for one touchdown in championship games against those teams.

The Falcons led the league with 48 sacks this season and scored five defensive touchdowns. End Patrick Kearney made the Pro Bowl with 13 sacks, but tackle Rod Coleman makes the line go, forcing a team-high five fumbles and registering 11 1/2 sacks.

"I think when you watch our defense play what you see is a group of 11 guys who just swarm to the football," Mora said. "I think there's a number of things that helped us advance to where we are statistically on defense, so we're looking for more improvement this game and more improvement in the future."

The game has the makings of a low-scoring affair, which in previous years did not bode well for the Eagles.

Philadelphia went into halftime winning against the Rams in the title game in January 2002 and trailing by seven points or fewer in the other two, but the Eagles' defense wore down, its receivers melted down and McNabb simply looked down in the second halves.

That was far from McNabb's mind when spoke publicly for the final time Friday.

"I have visualized actually winning the game and holding up the trophy and getting hit by confetti and having all of our fans getting excited and it being chilly out there and the snow on the ground," McNabb said. "See, I'm really visualizing that."

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