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Original Issue

Back in Stride Buoyed by Donovan McNabb's speedy recovery, the Eagles advanced to their second straight NFC Championship Game

It is a cold and clamorous place, and Donovan McNabb prefers to
avoid it like a blitzing defensive lineman. Last Saturday night
at Veterans Stadium, the Philadelphia Eagles' elusive
quarterback was grateful not to be cooped up in the frigid
skybox controlled by his mother, Wilma, who insists on opening
the windows whenever the home team has the ball. "Donovan has
to feel me when he's playing, and I have to feel him," Wilma
explained seconds before the start of the Eagles' NFC
divisional playoff game against the Atlanta Falcons. A few
minutes later, when McNabb trotted onto the field for the first
time since Nov. 17, Wilma slipped a fur coat over her mcnabb
mom jersey while the suite's two dozen other occupants shivered
and shook their heads.

The windchill was 20°, and on McNabb's second snap time seemed to
freeze. Eight weeks removed from breaking his right ankle,
McNabb, on second-and-10 from the Philly three-yard line, faked a
handoff and scooted to his right. Five yards deep in the end
zone, the quarterback was chased by Falcons strong safety Gerald
McBurrows, who was a lunging tackle away from giving the visitors
an emphatic two-point lead. Tension swirled through the stadium:
Would Donovan run? Could he? "Move, baby, move!" Wilma screamed.
Dutifully, McNabb sped out of the end zone, beat Atlanta
linebacker Keith Brooking to the first-down marker along the
right sideline and kept going, finally sidestepping out-of-bounds
after a 19-yard gain.

"That's what I'm talkin' about!" yelled McNabb's father, Samuel.
Meanwhile, Eagles coach Andy Reid and his players breathed sighs
of relief. "That run was what I was waiting to see," Philadelphia
wideout Antonio Freeman said after his team's 20--6 victory.
"When I saw that, I said, 'He's back,' and I'm sure everyone else
did too."

Perhaps the person least moved by the scamper's symbolism was the
man who turned the corner, literally and figuratively. "It was no
big deal, because I knew I was back," McNabb said. "It kind of
shocked me that they'd give me the opportunity to make a play
like that. But I figured, if that's the way they feel, I'll roll
with it."

Though that would be McNabb's only substantial scramble--he
finished with 24 yards rushing--his passing prowess (20 for 30,
247 yards, no interceptions) helped the top-seeded Eagles roll
into the NFC Championship Game for the second consecutive season
and move within one victory of their first Super Bowl appearance
in 22 years.

Having pushed so hard to return to the lineup--McNabb's
cardiovascular workouts at the team facility were so intense that
tired trainers had to administer his exercises in shifts--he was
eager to trumpet his restored vigor to the Falcons. After the
early run, said Atlanta cornerback Ray Buchanan, McNabb "was
smiling, looking over at our sideline and letting everybody know
he wasn't hurt." Earlier in the week Buchanan had cast doubts
upon McNabb's mobility, going so far as to say that the Falcons
would be more concerned about facing third-string passer A.J.
Feeley, who had started Philadelphia's final five regular-season

"We don't know how mobile McNabb's going to be," Brooking said
last Friday night, "but we're going to get after him and find out
real quick."

Adding to the drama was the sprinter's duel between McNabb and
Atlanta quarterback Michael Vick, who was gunning for his second
consecutive playoff upset. The two had become fast friends during
Vick's recruiting trip to Syracuse in 1997, when Orangemen
quarterback McNabb took the eventual Virginia Tech star to a
women's basketball game at Manley Field House and played the
roundball oddball. "Five minutes after I meet the guy, he stands
up in front of the band and breaks into this hilarious dance,"
Vick recalled last week. "Everybody in the gym was laughing."

Despite McNabb's demure public persona since arriving in
Philadelphia, his teammates know him as an ever-smiling jokester.
Even the tightly wound Reid laughs at the memory of the scene he
happened upon before a team meeting in 2000, about 15 yards from
his office in the Vet. "I walked out into the hall, and I thought
I heard my own voice," Reid recalls. "I peeked in and saw Donovan
imitating me cold, and he had the place in stitches. Then he saw
me, and he just sat down and froze."

That's a sensation with which McNabb is all too familiar, thanks
to his mother. After injuring his leg early in the Nov. 17
victory over the Arizona Cardinals--McNabb stayed in the lineup
and threw four touchdown passes before he was diagnosed with the
break--the quarterback watched Philly's final two home games from
the skybox, shuddering and complaining each time his mother would
open the windows to watch Feeley run the offense. "Apparently
A.J. has to feel her too," Donovan scoffed. Wilma's retort:
"That's your field; this is my box."

Last Saturday the guests in Wilma's box included national anthem
singer Patti LaBelle and Indianapolis Colts star wideout Marvin
Harrison. Wilma and her guests whooped it up with 7:58 left in
the first quarter when Vick (22 for 38, 274 yards), throwing off
his back foot, delivered an interception that Bobby Taylor
returned 39 yards for a 7--0 Philadelphia lead. That was the only
touchdown in the game until a fourth-and-one play at the Atlanta
35 with the Eagles clinging to a 13--6 lead and only 6:34 left.

During a timeout before the snap, McNabb successfully lobbied
Reid to let him throw a "flanker arrow" pass to wideout James
Thrash, one of the eight targets with whom the quarterback would
connect on the night. "Let's do this thing," McNabb told his
teammates in the huddle, then play-faked to running back Duce
Staley, who cut-blocked blitzing linebacker Chris Draft. McNabb
rolled to his right to buy time and threw a perfect pass to
Thrash, who had shed Buchanan after crossing routes with tight
end Chad Lewis. Thrash caught the ball at the 28 and, as Buchanan
slipped to the turf, darted up the middle for the clinching

Two hours later, at about 1 a.m., McNabb got a hearty hug from
Wilma as he prepared to leave the Vet. She let go of his
light-brown leather coat and watched as he slipped into the comfy
confines of his white Mercedes SL 500. Cheered by cops, stadium
workers in bright green jackets and adoring fans, McNabb zoomed
onto Pattison Avenue, his movement unrestricted, a Super Bowl in
his sights.

COLOR PHOTO: JOHN IACONO READY TO ROLL McNabb didn't look rusty in rushing for 24 yards and passing for 247 in his first game since Nov. 17.