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Original Issue

Tough Break

The Eagles will miss TO, but they're still in better shape for their run at the Super Bowl than they were a year ago

Though he was still feeling the effects of the anesthesia following surgery to repair torn ligaments in his right ankle on Monday, Eagles wide receiver Terrell Owens started calling teammates from the recovery room of a Baltimore hospital. He speed-dialed wideout Todd Pinkston, then receiver Freddie Mitchell and quarterback Donovan McNabb. "Hey," Owens told one sympathetic player after another. "Nothing's going to slow us down. Not even this."

A franchise, and a city, feeling cursed by the football gods can only hope he's right. After losing the NFC Championship Game three straight years, the Eagles were on their way to becoming the Bills of the new millennium. But the arrival of Owens in a trade last March with the 49ers not only gave Philadelphia a 6'3" deep threat that McNabb had sorely lacked, but also added swagger. This was the year the Eagles were going to waltz to the Super Bowl--until Sunday, when Cowboys safety Roy Williams dragged down Owens from behind early in the third quarter.

The wideout's right ankle and knee were bent awkwardly beneath him, resulting in the torn ligaments--after getting a second opinion in Baltimore, a screw was surgically inserted into the ankle--and a fracture of the right leg a few inches below the knee. Eagles trainer Rick Burkholder said there's "an outside chance" Owens could be ready for the Super Bowl on Feb. 6, if the Eagles make it that far.

This much is clear: Philadelphia will have to win the NFC without Owens, who has 77 catches for 1,200 yards and an NFL-high 14 touchdowns. On Monday night coach Andy Reid said, "There's no way" the team would try to rush Owens back for the conference title game, on Jan. 23.

The knee-jerk reaction is to say the Eagles are right back where they were a year ago, when the offense struggled in a 20--17 overtime win over the Packers in the divisional playoffs, then looked awful in a 14--3 loss to the Panthers. But making that assumption wouldn't be fair. Last year versatile running back Brian Westbrook was lost in the regular-season finale with a torn triceps; over the last six games this year he had as many receiving yards (450) as Owens had. Philadelphia still lacks a between-the-tackles running back, often going with short passes instead of runs on first down, but Westbrook leads all NFL backs with 73 catches. "We're going to continue to use him a lot of different ways to get him the ball in the open field," Reid said.

True, the downfield passing game is hurt badly by Owens's injury. But look for Greg Lewis, an undrafted second-year player out of Illinois with 16 career catches, to split time with Mitchell and immediately become a favorite target of McNabb's. Pinkston, at the other wideout spot, has shown alligator arms of late, and the 6-foot, 180-pound Lewis is a more physical receiver than Pinkston.

Also, because the rest of the NFC is so weak this season, Philadelphia (13--1) still has a better chance to get to the Super Bowl--even without Owens--than it did last year. Having clinched the East title and home field throughout the NFC playoffs, the Eagles get a bye the first week, then a divisional-round foe (a struggling team such as the Seahawks or the Vikings) they should easily dispatch. Their most formidable opponent would appear to be the Falcons (11--3), whom they wouldn't face until the conference championship game. Said Reid, "We'll rely on players like [defensive end] Jevon Kearse, [linebacker] Jeremiah Trotter and Brian Westbrook, who weren't playing for us a year ago either."





Owens, who led the league with 14 TD catches, stretched opposing defenses.




Owens walked off the field, but bad news came on Monday.