When push finally came to shove, the Eagles were the shovers, not the shovees. Donovan McNabb stepped up, as did his offensive teammates, most notably Brian Westbrook. It wasn't a last-minute comeback to win, but it was a fourth-quarter playoff gut check in a loud, hostile setting, and the Eagles passed.
Their reward after a taut, bruising victory over a physical team is a date at the Meadowlands next week with the defending Super Bowl champion New York Giants, who needed to exert themselves yesterday only to press the button on the remote to change channels after David Akers' fourth field goal set the final score with a minute and 55 seconds remaining.
But there will be plenty of time to fret about all that. For now, think about how unlikely it seemed 2 weeks ago that the Eagles would be one of the final eight teams playing in the NFL postseason.
"In this game, we found a way to finish," Westbrook said after scampering 71 yards with a screen pass to give the Birds some breathing room, taking the score from 16-14 to 23-14, with 6:37 left. The unanimous verdict in both locker rooms was that this was the play of the game. "We found a way to score, our defense found a way to make big stops. That's what you needed from our defense, that's what you need from your offense, to win in the playoffs."
"We lost some tough games early on in the season," said Westbrook, whose definition of "early on" might differ from that of some Eagles fans. "We didn't continue to fight throughout those football games . . . we did fight today, and we won."
Eagles coach Andy Reid said that it was "good to see the character of our football team in the fourth quarter . . . I didn't see any panic, or reservation, not to play aggressive football."
McNabb, hit both really hard and really often, unable to close the deal on some promising drives, did not give in to frustration.
"In a game like this, you have to be patient," said McNabb, who finished 23-for-34 for 300 yards and a 92.8 passer rating. "That's what the playoffs is all about, it's about patience and being able to take what the defense gives you, try not to turn the ball over, continue to keep yourself in the game. You do that, things like that screen play will happen.
"I thought today our team played well together, played with a lot of confidence, never put their head down."
As memorable screens go, the one the Eagles ran has to rank right up there with the first high-def TV.
Both Reid and McNabb noted that the Eagles, often a screen-heavy team, hadn't used one in this game, against a Vikings coaching staff that knew their tendencies very well. (Head coach Brad Childress and defensive coordinator Leslie Frazier are former Eagles assistants.)
"We called the play at exactly the right time," Westbrook said. "The offensive line did a great job of getting out on the screen . . . Correll [Buckhalter] threw a great block, and the receivers escorted me to the end zone."
Nick Cole, the right guard, was late off the mark and had some catching up to do, but he moved with the kind of alacrity one seldom sees in 6-foot, 350-pound men, and before Westbrook knew it, Cole was taking out a defensive back, giving him a seam to cut back inside to wide-open spaces.
"I felt somebody was in front of me. I realized it was Westbrook," said Cole, who knew right away that this was not an optimal arrangement. "I was supposed to have been gone . . . I took off running. I saw he made that cut, I just kept trucking upfield. Once Westbrook breaks, he's pretty much gone."
Vikings corner Antoine Winfield did not savor his view of the play.
"All I saw was him and three linemen in front of him," Winfield said. "He did a good job of weaving downfield for a touchdown."
"At that point in the game, we definitely needed some momentum. That touchdown provided that momentum," Westbrook said.
Before that? Well, it was an odd game. Not an awful game or a losing game, but one that the Eagles couldn't quite seem to take charge of.
Seldom has a two-point lead seemed more tenuous than when the Birds were hanging and scuffling around at 16-14 for most of the second half. The obituary, which contained many elements observers knew by heart, from previous failures, was being burnished. The Eagles' inconsistent offense was just not up to the task, as was the case so many times in 2008, particularly against good defenses, on the road.
The offense had gotten all kinds of help - a 44-yard interception return touchdown from sore-hipped Asante Samuel. Punt returns of 62 and 30 yards from DeSean Jackson. But it sure seemed to have the ailing, ineffective version of Westbrook, even given that the Vikings were keying on him.
McNabb was playing well but not great, under fire way too often, with the running game not working. Buckhalter, once again, reeled off a 27-yard run, got nowhere on his next carry, and would have needed a gun and a ransom note to get the ball again.
Not enough weapons, not enough push up front, not enough Westbrook, who had run for a paltry 18 yards on 14 carries, even though Vikings run-stuffer Pat Williams missed the game with a shoulder injury.
"They got into the running lanes early and often," Westbrook said afterward.
Sooner or later, Minnesota was going to break another run, like the early 40-yard TD burst that was Adrian Peterson's only really notable carry of the day. The Vikings would get on the board somehow, and that would be that. So close, but so far, etc.
Then, as those words were being typed, what just happened? Flip to Westbrook as the rush crashes into McNabb, yet again. Seventy-one yards. Nine-point lead. Fans in purple headed toward the exits. A mass decision that it was time to shovel the walk and salt the steps.
Just like that, Reid was 4-0 in wild-card playoff games.
"We needed it," Reid said when asked about the screen. "They were flying upfield and Brian hit that son of a gun."
McNabb said that before that, the offense was really doing a little better than its results suggested, and he had a point - remember those two first downs the Birds punched out when they were backed up at their 4?
"I wouldn't say we were struggling," McNabb said. "We sustained some drives. We just weren't able to come up with touchdowns . . . Obviously, when you're watching you want to see touchdowns, but [driving the ball] puts pressure on the opposing team, because we were able to back them up, and they have to go the long field."
The Eagles defense might have seemed a little vulnerable early, but it ended the day right where you would have expected it to be - Vikings QB Tarvaris Jackson completed 15 of 35 passes for 164 yards and a 45.4 passer rating. NFL rushing leader Peterson, the 40-yard TD run aside, gained 43 yards on 19 carries. The Vikings managed six first downs in the second half.
"All the things that we went through, we stayed together," said Brian Dawkins, who laid a staggering hit on Peterson early. "We didn't finger-point. We didn't say it's this unit's fault or this unit's fault. We didn't do that. We carried on."
Now they will carry on to New York, where unlike yesterday, they will be underdogs.
"We're 1-1 [against the Giants]," Samuel noted. "Hopefully, we can get the tiebreaker." *
For more Eagles coverage and opinion, read the Daily News' Eagles blog, Eagletarian, at www.eagletarian.com.