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GAME OF THE WEEK: Eagles, Panthers set for title game rematch

PHILADELPHIA (AP) - Donovan McNabb watched helplessly from the sideline while the Carolina Panthers wrapped up a stunning victory over the Philadelphia Eagles in last season's NFC championship game.

The physical agony of the sore ribs that forced McNabb to the bench hardly compared to the psychological ache of losing three straight title games.

"You wish that there was something else you could have done to move on to the next week," McNabb said. "It's a learning experience for us and something that we've all learned from and we're able to move on with."

The Eagles have come back strong since their 14-3 loss to the Panthers nine months ago, starting 4-0 for the first time in 11 years.

Meanwhile, Carolina has struggled after losing to New England in the Super Bowl. The injury-depleted Panthers are 1-3, desperate for a victory to save their season. Only eight teams have overcome a 1-4 start to make the playoffs.

"We'd rather not be playing the Eagles, but they're next on the schedule," Panthers quarterback Jake Delhomme said.

It took several months for the Eagles, and their passionate fans, to get over the disappointing loss to Carolina that denied Philadelphia its first trip to the Super Bowl since 1981. But the players realize a victory Sunday won't avenge the defeat.

"It's not really revenge, because if we beat them, it's not like we can go to the Super Bowl," safety Brian Dawkins said. "You want to win for the fact that we need to win this game. It's only revenge if we both get to the championship game, and we win it this time."

The Eagles have been in this situation before, and failed miserably. They opened last season with a Monday night game in their new stadium against Tampa Bay, which closed out Veterans Stadium with a victory in the NFC championship game on Jan. 19, 2003.

The Buccaneers won 17-0, sending the Eagles into a tailspin they eventually recovered from a few weeks later.

"We went out there and played like we had never played football before," linebacker Ike Reese said. "We were so bent on getting revenge, paying them back for closing down the Vet with a loss and all that, we forgot to execute the game plan."

The Eagles are a far better team, especially on offense, than the one the Panthers shut down in January. The additions of wide receiver Terrell Owens and defensive end Jevon Kearse significantly improved the talent on the field and invigorated the attitude in the locker room.

Philadelphia has won each of its game by double digits, including victories over the Giants, Minnesota and Detroit - teams that are 10-3 combined.

"They're rolling right now, they're having a pretty good run," said second-year cornerback Ricky Manning Jr., who intercepted McNabb three times in the last meeting. "Hopefully we can go in there and upset them somehow. We're focused this week. It's going to be fun."

Injuries are making it difficult for the Panthers to repeat in the NFC. Already without wideout Steve Smith for the season, Carolina lost All-Pro defensive tackle Kris Jenkins for the rest of the year with a shoulder injury. No. 2 running back DeShaun Foster also went down with a broken collarbone last week.

Star running back Stephen Davis, who missed the last three games with a knee injury, could return against the Eagles. Defensive tackle Brentson Buckner, who didn't play last week because of a knee injury, is questionable.

"You just keep focusing and keep pounding," safety Mike Minter said. "I feel like we still have the makeup to overcome anything we go through this year. I also think we've got enough to overcome this slump."

Most observers didn't give Carolina a chance against the Eagles last year, even though Philadelphia was without its top playmaker, versatile running back Brian Westbrook. But the Panthers harassed, pressured and frustrated McNabb, sacking him four times and forcing three picks, before sending the four-time Pro Bowl quarterback to the bench with a rib injury.

Manning and Carolina's other cornerbacks held starting wideouts - James Thrash and Todd Pinkston - to just one catch, intimidating them with a physical approach.

Owens won't let Manning easily push him around, though.

"This ain't what he wants right here. If he wants to bring it, then bring it," said Owens, who has six touchdown catches. "I don't have to talk a lot to pump my game up. I think I've done what I've had to do on the field and it kind of speaks for itself."

Unlike last season when Manning insulted Philadelphia's wideouts before the game and talked trash during it, he and the rest of the Panthers avoided a verbal confrontation this week.

There isn't much they could say, anyway.

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