EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. - The impossible suddenly looks probable. After requiring a miracle just to sneak into the playoffs, the Eagles are two very manageable wins from retracing the Phillies' parade route.

They will play in their fifth NFC championship game in eight years this Sunday in Arizona. There is nothing about the Cardinals or the AFC finalists, Baltimore and Pittsburgh, as imposing as the New York Giants at the Meadowlands.

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By beating the defending Super Bowl champions, 23-11, in a brutal game yesterday, the Eagles cleared the highest hurdle between themselves and their first NFL championship since 1960.

Maybe that's what drove Donovan McNabb to pick up the sideline telephone after running out of bounds in the fourth quarter. It was an uncharacteristic gesture on the part of the Eagles' quarterback. Even though it drew a 15-yard penalty, it was almost endearing. If anyone earned the right to phone a friend with the news, it was McNabb.

"I didn't say anything," McNabb said. "I've been having a great time on this run and I got caught up a little bit. I apologized to the team and to the coaches."

No apology was necessary, not after this most difficult of seasons and not after the trials of the last four years.

Once upon a time, No. 5 and his teammates played in the conference championship game four seasons in a row. After losing three times, they finally won and advanced to the Super Bowl after the 2004 season. That was four years, one Terrell Owens meltdown, and two season-shortening McNabb injuries ago.

It was fair to wonder whether McNabb's days of leading this team to the NFL final four were over. On Nov. 23 in Baltimore, when he was benched by coach Andy Reid at halftime of a particularly ugly loss, it was fair to wonder if McNabb's days of leading this team at all were coming to an end.

And there he was, zipping the ball to Jason Avant and Correll Buckhalter for big first downs, finding Brent Celek in the back of the end zone for a touchdown. There he was, beating the defending champions with their voracious defense on the hard green Giants Stadium turf.

"We've got another week of work," McNabb said. "I guess for us old guys, guys who people don't want to see anymore, they'll be watching us for another week. It's an exciting time for all of us."

Something has changed since those annual trips to the championship game, but it isn't what you'd think.

"I've always felt we're a much better team when we're loose," McNabb said.

That's what the last four years, and especially the last six weeks, have changed about the quarterback, the coach and this team. The Eagles who played so tight and blew championship opportunities against Tampa Bay and Carolina, both at home, are a distant memory. This group, given up for dead, has embraced its improbable opportunity by playing without the burden of ancient history.

In the first 31 minutes, McNabb threw two interceptions and committed an intentional-grounding penalty in the end zone that resulted in a safety. The rest of the way, against a defense that terrorized QBs all season, he completed 12 of 20 passes for 147 yards and a touchdown.

It was the steady work of a quarterback who faced humiliation and self-doubt and emerged on the other side, confident in his ability to win games.

So now, fittingly, McNabb goes up against Kurt Warner, the quarterback who beat the Eagles in that first NFC championship game. The world has revolved a few times since then. Warner is two teams removed from the St. Louis Rams, and McNabb is even further removed from the wide-eyed kid making his first deep playoff run.

"We haven't accomplished anything yet," Eagles owner Jeffrey Lurie said. "A division playoff is all this is. We need to win the NFC championship in Arizona, or it doesn't mean anything."

That's true enough. The Eagles needed remarkable luck to get into the playoffs. They played very well in Minneapolis last week and superbly yesterday to turn that luck into a sense of destiny.

The Eagles beat the Cardinals, 48-20, in Philadelphia on Thanksgiving night. They beat the Steelers earlier in the season. They know in their hearts they could have and should have beaten Baltimore. Those are the three possible teams between them and that championship parade they expected long before now.

Steve Spagnuolo, the defensive coordinator who helped the Giants win it all, came into the Eagles' locker room after the game. He embraced Pat Shurmur and Ted Williams, with whom he worked in Philadelphia for eight years.

"Go get that ring," Spagnuolo told his old friends before seeking out Brian Dawkins to deliver the same message: "Go get that ring."

The hardest part of the job is done.

Contact columnist Phil Sheridan at 215-854-2844 or psheridan@phillynews.com.
Read his recent work at http://go.philly.com/philsheridan.