PHILADELPHIA – There was no rust, even though most starters barely played for nearly a month. There was no lack of big-play offense, even with All-Pro wide receiver Terrell Owens watching from a luxury box.
Thanks to the best clutch performance of Freddie Mitchell's (search) four-year career, the Philadelphia Eagles advanced to their fourth straight NFC championship game, routing the Minnesota Vikings 27-14 Sunday.
Donovan McNabb (search) and the Eagles (14-3) got plenty of help from the self-destructing Vikings (9-9), who showed exactly how they lost seven of their last 10 regular-season games to back into the playoffs. Minnesota's high-powered offense couldn't handle defensive end Jevon Kearse and linebacker Jeremiah Trotter — neither of whom was with the Eagles last season.
Philadelphia, which has lost three consecutive conference title games, the last two at home, hosts Atlanta next Sunday. The angst level this week in Philly will be off the scale as the Eagles attempt to get to their first Super Bowl in 24 years.
The inept Vikings didn't exactly provide a test, but Michael Vick (search) and the Falcons should be a more formidable hurdle.
While Philadelphia was getting two touchdowns from Mitchell — and one takeoff of Randy Moss' (search) simulated mooning as Mitchell pretended to pull up his pants after his first score — it also benefited greatly from Vikings' errors:
— An offensive lineman remaining on the field instead of Moss for a fake field goal, leaving no receivers to catch Gus Frerotte's pass.
— Several costly defensive penalties, including three pass interference calls totaling 78 yards.
— Two damaging interceptions thrown by Culpepper, who had 39 TD passes and only 11 picks during the season.
Mitchell finished with five catches for 65 yards, and each one was a key play. He also got lucky on his second TD, catching a fumble by tight end L.J. Smith in the end zone.
Under coach Andy Reid, the Eagles never have lost after a bye, and the regulars basically had three weeks of nonaction. It didn't hurt, and Philly led 14-0 44 seconds into the second quarter.
Mitchell caught a 2-yard pass from McNabb midway in the opening period, then did his reverse moon. Greg Lewis' graceful catch of a 52-yard throw then set up Brian Westbrook's 7-yard TD reception, Westbrook's first postseason score; he was injured for last year's playoffs.
The Eagles held Moss to three catches for 51 yards, sacked Culpepper three times and befuddled him nearly all the time.
The Vikings gained more on one second-quarter play, a 40-yard pass to Marcus Robinson, than they managed in total before that. It sparked a drive that culminated in Culpepper's 7-yard scramble to make it 14-7.
But Minnesota immediately messed up again. J.R. Reed returned the kickoff to the Vikings 46, then Minnesota was hit for two pass interference calls. From the 14, McNabb found L.J. Smith over the middle, and Smith fumbled at the 4 when hit by Antoine Winfield. The ball shot directly to Mitchell, who caught it in the end zone for his second score.
Only Mitchell's fourth-and-26 reception in the playoffs against Green Bay last January was more meaningful. That catch pretty much got the Eagles to the NFC title game, where they lost to Carolina.