PHILADELPHIA – Sorry, Eagles. Not this time, either. The surprising Carolina Panthers (search) are Super Bowl-bound instead.
The Panthers once again showed no fear on the road, shocking Philadelphia (search) 14-3 Sunday night and handing the Eagles their third straight NFC championship game defeat.
Rookie Ricky Manning Jr., a hero last week with an interception to set up the winning touchdown at St. Louis, picked off three passes against an ailing Donovan McNabb (search).
Eight days after ending the Rams' 14-game home winning streak in double overtime, the Panthers marched into The Linc and grabbed their first conference crown. They'd gotten this far in 1996, their second season, but lost to Green Bay. This time, they extended the angst-filled wait for a championship in Philadelphia and will head to Houston to meet the New England Patriots on Feb. 1.
The Patriots beat Indianapolis 24-14 earlier Sunday for the AFC title.
For Philadelphia, it is now 20 full seasons without any kind of pro sports championship. The Eagles' last NFL title was in 1960, and they are the first team to host consecutive conference championships and lose both since game sites originally were determined by record in 1975.
Just two seasons back, the Panthers were the NFL's worst team with a 1-15 record. John Fox was hired as coach and engineered one of the most impressive turnarounds in league history. They beat Dallas handily at home in the wild-card round, then won the thriller at the Rams.
Fox's opportunistic defense made the difference Sunday, led by a fierce pass rush and third-round draft pick Manning, who tied an NFC championship game record with his three pickoffs. The Panthers hurt McNabb's ribs in the second quarter, then destroyed Philadelphia's chance for its first Super Bowl trip since 1981 with a powerful display in the third period.
By the final quarter, McNabb was out of the game and the Eagles were out of options.
Manning's third interception -- off a deflection when receiver James Thrash was hit hard by Mike Minter -- and his 17-yard return was critical. So was the inability of the Eagles' secondary to make the same kind of plays.
Lito Sheppard's 14-yard interference penalty against Steve Smith put Carolina at the 1. DeShaun Foster then powered through four tacklers for a 14-3 lead with 4:11 left in the third quarter.
In the first half, despite double coverage, Muhsin Muhammad made a 24-yard touchdown catch for a 7-0 lead.