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Original Issue

Celebrating the Fourth

With its blitzing defense disrupting the Minnesota passing game, Philadelphia made it four NFC title games in four years


AT 8 A.M. on Sunday, five hours before Philadelphia's divisional playoff game against the visiting Minnesota Vikings, Eagles All-Pro safety Brian Dawkins rose from his bed and began his weekly transformation from man to marvel. After wolfing down a pregame breakfast (spaghetti, chicken breast, salad--yes, breakfast) and chilling to his beloved gospel music, Dawkins folded himself into his locker at Lincoln Financial Field and summoned his inner beast. Finally, with the start of the game 30 minutes away, the mild-mannered Dawkins's alter ego sprang out, one modeled on the Marvel Comics superhero Wolverine. As Dawkins seethed and stomped around the locker room, his teammates plugged into his intensity.

"He's sitting there, so intense that I didn't even try to talk to him," said Philadelphia rookie cornerback Matt Ware, who dresses next to Dawkins. "Then comes the hyperventilating, and look out."

"He turns into an animal," says cornerback Sheldon Brown. "There's someone inside Dawk that we only see on Sundays. We feed off that. He's our leader. Period."

In the ensuing 27--14 victory over the Vikings, Dawkins and his defensive cohorts couldn't have played much better. Using a ramped-up blitz scheme, they continually harassed quarterback Daunte Culpepper (one touchdown pass, two interceptions) and held Randy Moss to three meaningless receptions for 51 yards. "Last time against the Vikings [a 27--16 win in Week 2], we stayed conservative," said Eagles defensive coordinator Jim Johnson. "Today we wanted turnovers and pressure on Culpepper. We blitzed well, especially Dawk, and we had great deep coverage. We took away their options."

Philadelphia advanced to its fourth straight NFC Championship Game--against Michael Vick and the Atlanta Falcons this Sunday--simultaneously elating and unnerving a jittery city haunted by the team's three consecutive conference-title-game defeats.

A coolly efficient Eagles offense was led by quarterback Donovan McNabb (21 of 33, 286 yards, two touchdowns), wideout Freddie Mitchell (five catches, 65 yards, one TD on a fumble recovery, one TD receiving) and tailback Brian Westbrook (117 total yards, one TD). Showing no ill effects from coach Andy Reid's decision to hold many of his starters out of game action for a month after Philly had clinched home field advantage throughout the playoffs on Dec. 19, the Eagles jumped to a 14--0 lead and were comfortably ahead, 21--7, at the half. From there, "our blitzing took over," Dawkins said of the pressure that came on nearly 50% of Minnesota's snaps. "It was fun."

For Dawkins, the bliss made up for his off-season blues. He spent most of last spring and summer in a funk after his two best friends on the team, cornerbacks Troy Vincent and Bobby Taylor, left as free agents. Not until early October, he says, did he fully get over their departure. "I looked at Sheldon and Lito [Sheppard, a cornerback] and [strong safety] Michael Lewis, the young guys, and I thought, They need my best," Dawkins says. "I decided right there to enjoy the year to its fullest."

There was much to relish. Dawkins finished second on the team with four interceptions and tied for fourth with 69 tackles. He was also one of nine Eagles selected for the Pro Bowl. "Dawk messes with a quarterback's head," Brown says. "He covers like a corner and hits harder than anyone. He gives you the confidence to make a pick, jump a route. He has your back."

Truth be told, on Sunday, Dawkins felt lucky just to suit up against Minnesota. He had spent Philadelphia's playoff bye week battling the flu. "I sprayed the house with Lysol and locked him in our bedroom, away from the kids," said his wife, Connie. He spent two nights in a hospital, getting out on Jan. 10. In trying to regain his strength, Dawkins held back in practice last week. "It was tough on him," Johnson said. "He hates not being 100 percent."

Still, in Moss, Dawkins had plenty of motivation to play through any lingering exhaustion. In the Week 2 game between the two clubs, Moss wore an NFL Films microphone, and when the tape appeared on TV later in the season, the receiver was heard begging for a deep pass because "Brian Dawkins can't jump with me." After helping to shut down Moss, who was slowed by a sprained right ankle on Sunday, Dawkins was especially satisfied. "I didn't say anything to him," Dawkins said. "But I hadn't forgotten."

Dawkins wasn't always locked onto Moss. With the Eagles ahead 21--7 and the Vikings with third-and-10 at the Philly 19, he blitzed around right end and sacked Culpepper for a 12-yard loss, knocking Minnesota out of field goal range. Culpepper's fourth-down heave to Moss fell incomplete in the end zone.

Greeting Connie after the game with a soft kiss in the nearly deserted players' tunnel, Dawkins responded to a question about the mind-set of Eagles fans heading into the NFC title game. He thought for a moment, then said, "They can be paranoid if that works, but we'll be relaxing and enjoying this. Because if we stay loose, we stay lethal." --Josh Elliott




Coming from opposite directions, Dawkins (20) and Brown swooped in on Minnesota running back Mewelde Moore.