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McNabb still a force for Eagles

Photo by Scott Chancey

Photo by Scott Chancey

PHILADELPHIA -- Since leading the Philadelphia Eagles to the Super Bowl five years ago, Donovan McNabb watched the team draft his potential successor, overcame two season-ending injuries, and even got benched.

Through it all, No. 5 is still standing.

With a victory at Dallas (10-5) on Sunday, the Eagles (11-4) would clinch their sixth NFC East title this decade and secure a first-round bye in the playoffs.

McNabb has helped put them in this spot by having one of his finest seasons. The five-time Pro Bowl quarterback has done it with an inexperienced but talented supporting cast that relies on him far more than the 2004 crew.

Back then, McNabb had Terrell Owens as his go-to receiver. Versatile running back Brian Westbrook was developing into a Pro Bowl player. Tra Thomas and Jon Runyan anchored the offensive line. Overall, it was a veteran group that finally broke through after losing three straight NFC championship games.

Now McNabb is surrounded by a bunch of kids who grew up playing him on John Madden's video game.

Westbrook remains with the team, but he's been limited because of two concussions. Pro Bowl wide receiver DeSean Jackson has replaced Westbrook as the top playmaker in just his sophomore season. Rookie Jeremy Maclin is the other starting receiver. Rookie LeSean McCoy is the leading rusher. Tight end Brent Celek, who leads in receptions, is only in his third season.

Then there's the 33-year-old McNabb. He makes it all happen.

"I don't look at it as the old guy," McNabb said. "It's just like a basketball player when you go through the draft and you draft guys and you still have that key guy or that face, the face that's been there for years in the organization. And you build around him and all of a sudden you're starting to see younger guys making big plays and you're having fun and you're winning ballgames. I love that role."

In a 30-27 victory over Denver last Sunday, McNabb had an outstanding first half against a defense ranked No. 2 against the pass. He was 15 for 19 for 242 yards and two touchdowns. But the Broncos tightened up and McNabb struggled along with the rest of the offense in the second half. After Denver rallied from a 27-10 deficit to tie it, McNabb delivered his third winning drive in the fourth quarter during Philadelphia's six-game winning streak.

McNabb, who used to be one of the league's most dangerous scramblers, turned things around with a 27-yard run on third-and-25 from the Eagles 15. Though Philadelphia didn't get another first down on that drive, his daring dash changed field position. That shortened the field for the Eagles on their next possession, and David Akers made a 28-yard field goal to win it after Maclin made a spectacular catch near the sideline.

"Donovan had the big run there at the end which was good to see; really he put into a little different gear there and that was a big play for us," coach Andy Reid said.

McNabb's best statistical season came in '04 with T.O. here. He threw for 3,875 yards, 31 TDs and had a 64.0 completion percentage and 104.7 passer rating.

This year, McNabb has thrown for 3,330 yards, 22 TDs and has a 60.7 completion percentage and 94.5 passer rating. He missed two games after breaking a rib in the opener.

"I don't go into the whole individual aspect," McNabb said when asked to rate his performance. "As a team, we have really played well with all the adversities that we've had to overcome, with the shuffling of the offensive line. I'm just proud of those guys in just kind of the way they've taken the horns and run with it and just kind of excited about getting that opportunity to make a play. For my job, it's just to make sure that those guys are prepared at all times and ready to make a play when the time comes."

Despite his impressive credentials, McNabb's tenure in Philadelphia has been marked by controversy, intense scrutiny and an overwhelming feeling of underachievement because the Eagles haven't won a Super Bowl.

Critics bash McNabb, saying he can't win the big game. When Jeff Garcia stepped in after McNabb got injured in 2006 and led the Eagles to a division crown, fans really started turning on McNabb.

He won many of them back by rebounding from his first career benching -- at halftime of a loss at Baltimore last November -- to lead the Eagles to an improbable playoff berth, two road playoff wins and their fifth NFC title game in eight years.

But McNabb couldn't direct the Eagles to victory after rallying them from an 18-point deficit against the Arizona Cardinals. That led to another offseason filled with criticism. Some wondered if the Eagles could ever go any further with McNabb and whether it was time to turn to Kevin Kolb.

Instead, management rewarded McNabb by reworking the final two years of his contract and giving him a $5.3 raise. The message was clear, however: McNabb didn't sign an extension, so if he doesn't deliver a championship this year or next, he's probably gone.

The future can wait. Right now, the Eagles have a legitimate chance to reach the Super Bowl in a wide-open NFC. The once-dominant New Orleans Saints have lost two in a row and shown signs of vulnerability. A victory over the Cowboys would give the Eagles the No. 2 seed and significantly increase their chances.

They probably wouldn't be here without McNabb.

"He's doing a nice job," Reid said. "I think he's a future Hall of Fame quarterback. That's how I feel about him. I think that's the highest praise you can give somebody in this profession. I think the world of the guy on and off the field in the way he conducts himself. He just does it right. He deserves every accolade that he gets from this sport."

A Super Bowl ring would complete McNabb's resume.