JACKSONVILLE, FLA. — JACKSONVILLE, Fla. - Shortly after the Philadelphia Eagles and New England Patriots arrived for Super Bowl week, all the talk centered on the big-talking Philadelphia receiver.
Shockingly, it had nothing to do with Terrell Owens.
Three days after Freddie Mitchell dissed the Patriots' secondary, New England players were still steaming over his remarks, which dominated their first interviews in northern Florida.
Strong safety Rodney Harrison called Mitchell a "jerk" and warned him to watch his back Sunday at Alltel Stadium.
"When you attack me, you're attacking the 10 other guys on defense," said Harrison, who is known as one of the hardest-hitting and dirtiest players in the league. "A lot of guys take that personally because we're such a close-knit group. It's not like he just has to watch out for me ... he has to watch out for everyone.
"Everyone will be pumped up, ready to go, because we all take offense to smart-aleck comments like that."
It was an uncharacteristic start for the defending champions, who are known for their cerebral approach and their bland, cliche-riddled sound bites.
But their trash-talking was prompted by Mitchell, the Eagles' sixth-leading receiver who drew a blank when asked to name the Patriots' cornerbacks Thursday. He went on to say that he knows No. 37 is Harrison and that he "has something" for the New England safety when the teams meet.
"When he says something like that, he's disrespecting our whole defense," linebacker Willie McGinest said. "Not only Rodney, but me and Tedy Bruschi and Mike Vrabel and all the rest of us."
Mitchell was unavailable to reporters yesterday.
"They were meaningless comments," Philadelphia quarterback Donovan McNabb said. "Freddie didn't mean anything by them. It's sad that people have to blow them up to make them into a story.
"Freddie apologized. If someone needs those comments to get up for a game like this, they don't need to be here. This is the Super Bowl, this is the ultimate."
Harrison has gained a reputation for being one of the most heavily fined players in NFL history, having doled out more than $350,000. His latest was a $7,500 fine from the AFC championship game for a hit to the face mask on receiver Hines Ward.
"Rodney isn't one of the guys you want to get riled up if you're a receiver," McGinest said. "He was ready to play yesterday. To hear comments like that, it really gets him going."
Meanwhile, there was no news regarding Philadelphia's other receiver. Owens walked off the plane sporting a bag in each hand, a stone-faced look and no limp.
The Eagles' star receiver is expected to gradually rejoin the team at Wednesday's practice and, barring any setbacks, reportedly could play as the third wide-out.
Owens underwent right ankle surgery Dec. 22 to stabilize a fractured fibula and was given a recovery period of eight to 10 weeks. Just 5 1/2 weeks later, he hasn't received clearance from his doctors, yet has insisted he will play.
"He's going to start running and progress through the week so we'll have to see," Eagles coach Andy Reid said. "He's not there yet. We'll have to see how he does this week here."
The first steps in Jacksonville were different for each team.
Reporting for their third Super Bowl in four seasons, the Patriots are on familiar ground. In their first title game in 24 years, the Eagles are entering unknown territory, seeking the franchise's first Super Bowl championship.
"This is what it's all about," Reid said. "I think every head coach has this goal. We're just lucky it's a reality."
The Eagles have only five players with Super Bowl experience: defensive end Jevon Kearse (Tennessee Titans), running back Dorsey Levens (Green Bay Packers), tight end Jeff Thomason (Green Bay), linebacker Nate Wayne (Denver Broncos) and offensive tackle Jon Runyan (Tennessee).
Kearse, who last played on this stage five years ago, had some advice for his teammates who have never experienced this event.
"I told the guys, 'Bottle up all your emotions and save it,' " Kearse said. "'Then bring it all out on Super Bowl Sunday.' "
Although the number of titles won clearly separates the teams, the Patriots maintain they share the same hunger as Philadelphia.
Asked whether New England was satisfied with a couple of championships, receiver-nickel back Troy Brown said: "Not a chance. We don't think that way. There's no comfort level, no comfort zone at all.
"There are some guys on this team - Corey Dillon is one - who have not won a Super Bowl. I've got two rings, but I want to go out and play well and give a guy like that the chance to win one. You play your butt off for him to win one, too."
Philadelphia (15-3) vs New England (16-2)
6:30 p.m. Sunday
Chs. 45, 5
Line: Patriots by 7
Jacksonville is welcoming the world this week, albeit a bit sheepishly. The locals are well-aware of the snickering that has been going on around the country as they line up cruise ships on the St. Johns River to compensate for the lack of downtown hotel rooms. But you've got to like the bikinied models handing out fresh-squeezed orange juice at the South Florida tourism booth, even if the temperature is barely out of the 50s.
... Or SUPER BORE
Thank God for the Super Bowl Media Center, where the Maryland-Georgia Tech basketball game was being broadcast on the Sunshine Network - a channel that wasn't offered in many of the local hotels. The Iraq election coverage was great, but inquiring Mid-Atlantic minds want to know how Nik Caner-Medley threw down the rock.
- Peter Schmuck