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Cardinals burn Eagles to win NFC crown

GLENDALE, Ariz. - The game, like the Eagles' season, was filled with ups and downs and twists and turns that could make any stomach churn.

GLENDALE, Ariz. - The game, like the Eagles' season, was filled with ups and downs and twists and turns that could make any stomach churn.

The only thing that seems to remain the same for coach Andy Reid and his team is the unhappy ending.

After showing up late for work at University of Phoenix Stadium today, the Eagles rallied from an 18-point halftime deficit to take a one-point lead in the fourth quarter, then watched it disappear because the defense that had gotten them this far could not get them to the NFL's ultimate game.

All that was left for the Eagles after their 32-25 NFC championship loss to the Arizona Cardinals was that searing pain of being so close to something special but never getting to clear that final hurdle.

Brian Dawkins knew exactly how to describe the hurt after watching the Cardinals punch their first ticket to the Super Bowl in franchise history. It wasn't any more or less agonizing than the Eagles' other three NFC title game losses in this decade.

"It just hurts," Dawkins said. "When you burn your hand, no matter how you burned it, it still hurts, and that's the way I feel."

Even though this postseason burn might feel the same as all the others the Eagles have suffered during Dawkins' career, the arson investigation will turn up some odd clues as to how the season went up in flames.

We'll begin at the end.

With 10 minutes, 45 seconds left in the game, quarterback Donovan McNabb scrambled away from pressure and threw a bomb downfield to rookie DeSean Jackson, who had gotten a yard behind cornerback Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie.

Jackson juggled the football at the 3-yard line, maintained his concentration and secured it in the end zone for a 62-yard touchdown, giving the Eagles a 25-24 lead and sending their sideline into a wild celebration.

Now, all the Eagles needed from their defense was one stop of quarterback Kurt Warner and the Cardinals' offense. After surrendering 260 yards, 15 first downs and 24 points in the opening half, the defense had recovered to allow just one first down and force three punts on Arizona's first three possessions of the second half.

One more stop and the Cardinals might have been broken because all the momentum was with the Eagles.

Instead, Warner led the Cardinals on a 14-play, 72-yard drive that included a critical fourth-down conversion and ended with a third-down screen pass to rookie running back Tim Hightower for an 8-yard touchdown. Warner was 5 for 5 for 56 yards on the final drive.

"He was getting the ball out of his hands quick," Dawkins said. "He wasn't allowing the blitz to get to him. He did a great job on that drive."

Hightower's touchdown and a two-point conversion pass left the Eagles down by seven with 2:53 to play.

Like the defense, the offense awoke from a first-half slumber to score three straight touchdowns and take the lead in the second half, so confidence was high when McNabb went out with a chance to get the Eagles even in the final three minutes.

The quarterback took the Eagles from their own 20 to the Arizona 47 in four plays, hooking up with Brian Westbrook for a 19-yard gain that gave the Eagles a first down.

And then the Eagles ran their final four meaningful plays of the season. All four were incomplete passes.

Receiver Hank Baskett slipped on first down as McNabb's pass was coming toward him. McNabb overthrew a wide open Jackson on second down. Under pressure, the quarterback threw behind Baskett on third down, leaving the Eagles with a fourth-and-10 situation.

Their season was on the line after the two-minute warning.

McNabb, who threw for a playoff career-high of 375 yards, tried to connect with Kevin Curtis on the fourth-down play and the receiver had the ball in his hands, but he couldn't hold on. Curtis obviously felt as if he had been hit early by cornerback Rod Hood on the play, but no flag was thrown.

"I had my hands on the ball, so I have to catch it," Curtis said. "You can't put it in the ref's hands."

Said McNabb: "We had one-one-one coverage with Rod Hood and we felt like that would be a good matchup for us. All I know is my guy went down. We didn't get a call, so it's unfortunate."

Equally unfortunate was the way the Eagles played in the first half.

A white-hot defense that had smothered the Minnesota Vikings and New York Giants in the first two rounds of the playoffs looked lost trying to stop the veteran Warner and his stud wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald in the first two quarters.

The Cardinals scored three touchdowns and a field goal on five first-half possessions, leaving the Eagles' defense dazed and confused. The Eagles had no answer for Fitzgerald, who had six catches for 113 yards and three touchdowns before the intermission. Warner, meanwhile, completed 14 of 17 passes for 203 yards.

"Fitzgerald is a great receiver and a playmaker," Eagles linebacker Chris Gocong said. "We thought we could get pressure on Warner and we weren't able to do that early. We just came out flat. We put ourselves in a big hole."

That, of course, is exactly what the Eagles did during the regular season, too.

They put themselves in a huge hole at 5-5-1 and got the miracle they needed on the final day to get into the playoffs.

But there was no miracle on this day unless you consider the fact that the Arizona Cardinals are now going to the Super Bowl a divine and inexplicable act.

"The guys fought and I'm proud of them for that," Eagles coach Andy Reid said after his record fell to 1-4 in conference championship games. "But this is a very sudden thing when you lose in the playoffs. Our reality is that there is only one happy team at the end of the year. You are in the playoffs and you expect to move on, so right now that hurts."