No T.O.? Don't count out Eagles

Published: Saturday, January 15, 2005 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Friday, January 14, 2005 at 10:50 p.m.
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Philadelphia quarterback Donovan McNabb warms up during practice this week. The Eagles face the Minnesota Vikings in a playoff game Sunday.

The Associated Press
PHILADELPHIA - Terrell Owens is on crutches and probably finished until next season.
Randy Moss is limping from a sprained right ankle that has cost him practice time, but is expected to be on the field Sunday when his Minnesota Vikings play the Eagles in a second-round playoff game.
Advantage Minnesota? Not so fast.
While Philadelphia certainly will miss Owens, the team's most dangerous playmaker, the Eagles likely can handle his absence because of their staunch defense. And the key to that defense is the superb secondary, which is capable of shutting down even a healthy Moss, Minnesota's most dangerous playmaker.
''I think we are kind of coming together and getting on the same page,'' All-Pro cornerback Lito Sheppard said. ''Maybe it is because of the type of year we have had so far. Everybody is feeling comfortable and a lot more confident.
''You have to go against the best in order to be one of the best. This is another opportunity for me and the rest of the secondary to prove that we can play with the best.''
Moss might not be at his best, but he wasn't completely healthy last weekend and he had a big game at Green Bay. He wasn't so effective in Philadelphia's 27-16 victory over Minnesota in Week 2, with a costly pass interference penalty along with eight receptions for 69 yards and a 4-yard touchdown late in the game.
Moss couldn't get open deep against the secondary, revamped in the offseason with new starters at cornerback in Sheppard and Sheldon Brown. That secondary has jelled so well that free safety Brian Dawkins also made the All-Pro team, plus strong safety Michael Lewis, Dawkins and Sheppard are going to the Pro Bowl.
So the experience gained by Sheppard, Brown and Lewis as starters, and the leadership of Dawkins, have been critical in the development of the defensive backfield, perhaps the best secondary in football.
''They've got a lot of confidence,'' defensive coordinator Jim Johnson said. ''They might give up a big play, but they won't back off. They are very competitive guys.''
They'll be challenging Moss from the outset, along with Nate Burleson, who stepped up his performances when Moss was sidelined for three games and parts of two others by a hamstring injury. But it's a matchup that favors Philly.
Minnesota's secondary isn't nearly in the class of Philadelphia's, although Johnson praised Antoine Winfield, signed this season as a free agent. Not having to deal with Owens will make things easier for Winfield and the other defensive backs.
But the Eagles have another prime weapon, running back Brian Westbrook, who creates mismatches against Minnesota's unimpressive linebackers and safeties. Philadelphia reached its third straight NFC championship game without Owens, then with San Francisco, and the injured Westbrook last year.
Now, the Eagles have a healthy Westbrook and a better defense. So do the Vikings have an edge?
If they do, offensive coordinator Scott Linehan believes it stems from not getting blown out by the Eagles in Game 2.
''We've gone into that environment and put ourselves in position to win the football game, and didn't do it,'' Linehan said. ''We still are a young team, and for our team to have that experience in their mind, knowing we've been there before, is certainly not going to hurt us.''

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