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NFC CHAMPIONSHIP GAME Eagles hope to shed history of chokes



Published: Tue, January 18, 2005 @ 12:00 a.m.



Andy Reid's team has tried not to focus on the three previous playoff losses.

PHILADELPHIA (AP) -- The Philadelphia Eagles didn't pop open any champagne bottles and hardly celebrated their latest playoff victory.

After losing the last three NFC championship games, they won't be partying until they get to a Super Bowl. Neither will their jittery fans, who are used to heartbreaking losses this time of year.

"We're not happy about winning this game," wide receiver Greg Lewis said after Sunday's 27-14 victory over Minnesota sent the Eagles to their fourth consecutive NFC title game. "We want to win the next game and the next game. That's what we're looking forward to."

Unfriendly house

The Eagles (14-3) play host to Atlanta (12-5) Sunday -- the first time a team has hosted three consecutive conference championships. It's a rematch of a second-round playoff game two years ago won 20-6 by Philadelphia.

Some players are using the last three championship games as motivation. Eagles coach Andy Reid prefers to focus on the matchup against the Falcons instead of recalling the losses at home to Carolina and Tampa Bay and in St. Louis in 2002.

"Every team is a new team," he said Monday. "I don't think you use as much of the past as people think. We understand the intensity of the game. We're going to come out and play our best game. That's what you strive for."

City of Chokers

The Eagles have been here before, home favorites against a team from a city with a warmer climate that has trouble winning on the road, especially in cold weather.

Only a victory against the Falcons can ease the memories of the past playoff failures. Meanwhile, the level of anxiety in Philly will be off the charts this week, considering how often teams -- and horses, remember Smarty Jones -- choke around here. This championship-starved city hasn't celebrated a winner since the 76ers won the NBA title in 1983, and hasn't seen an NFL title since 1960.

With the Steelers hosting New England in the AFC championship game, it could be even more embarrassing for Eagles fans if Pittsburgh was the only Pennsylvania representative in the Super Bowl.

"The last few years have left a bad taste in our mouth," Pro Bowl middle linebacker Jeremiah Trotter said. "We know what is at stake now. We are a better team now than we were the last three years."

The Eagles silenced some of their critics with an easy win over the Vikings that wasn't as close as the final score indicated. They weren't rusty, even though some starters hadn't played in four weeks. Philly also proved it can win without All-Pro receiver Terrell Owens, out with an ankle injury.

Corraling Vick

"T.O. only made us better," cornerback Sheldon Brown said. "We've been in this situation for three years now. He only made us better, so the team is still a good football team."

Atlanta presents a more formidable challenge than the Vikings. Pro Bowl quarterback Michael Vick leads an offense that gained 327 yards on the ground in Saturday's 47-17 rout of St. Louis. Running backs Warrick Dunn and T.J. Duckett give the Falcons a solid one-two punch in the backfield, keeping defenses off-balance.

"They're the best running unit in the league," All-Pro safety Brian Dawkins said. "They're doing a good job mixing in small passes every once in a while. They have a good defense and they're doing a good job with ball control, so we're going to have our hands full, especially with their quarterback."

Though the Eagles had no trouble keeping Daunte Culpepper in the pocket, Vick clearly is the most dangerous running quarterback in the league. Vick had 119 yards rushing against the Rams, a playoff record for a quarterback.




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