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The Eagles reached uncharted ground

The Philadelphia Eagles finally have their NFC title.

Beating the New England Patriots in the Super Bowl in two weeks will be an entirely different matter.

The Eagles' 27-10 win over Atlanta on Sunday got them beyond the NFC championship game, where they had lost the past three seasons. It lifted an incredible load off the team AND its fans, probably the most critical in American sports.

It may be all downhill from here, however.

For starters, the Patriots play in the AFC, a far superior conference. It's safe to say that Atlanta might have had a hard time making the playoffs in the other conference _ the Falcons lost 56-10 to Kansas City, a 7-9 AFC team.

Philadelphia is going against a team that has won two of the last three NFL titles and is one win away from establishing itself as one of the great teams in the 35 years since the AFL-NFL merger. Beyond that, the Eagles will face a coach, Bill Belichick, who tied Vince Lombardi for the best postseason winning percentage in history, .900 _ 9-1.

It's very flattering to be mentioned in the same breath with Vince Lombardi,'' he said.I don't think I deserve it.''

If he wins another Super Bowl, he will.

Belichick and the Patriots beat Pittsburgh, 41-27, a team whose 15-1 record was the NFL's best this season. The Pats got three interceptions off rookie Ben Roethlisberger and handed the league's most successful rookie QB his first loss after 14 straight wins.

They intercepted Roethlisberger's first pass, then jumped to a 24-3 lead on Rodney Harrison's 87-yard interception return, a classic case of an 11-year veteran suckering a rookie into a horrible throw.

Philadelphia's Donovan McNabb is not a rookie, not even close.

He's one of the NFL's best QBs and he is certainly capable of reading New England's complex defenses and making plays to beat it _ with his arm and his legs. But does he have the supporting cast?

Las Vegas oddsmakers didn't think so, installing New England as the early 6-to-6{-point favorite for the Feb. 6 Super Bowl in Jacksonville, Fla.

A big asset for the Eagles this time was Brian Westbrook, whose absence in last year's NFC championship game loss to Carolina deprived McNabb of his only playmaker. This year's superlative addition, Terrell Owens, could be back for the Super Bowl _ the first time since tearing ligaments in his ankle on Dec. 19.

Owens certainly was active Sunday, waving towels, and moving extremely well along the sideline.

The difference is that if he plays in the Super Bowl and that's still a big IF he won't be on the sidelines. He'll be playing against an extremely aggressive defense.

Every day he's making progress,'' Eagles coach Andy Reid said.We'll see how he does this next week. ... You saw him down there walking around, jumping around, actually.''

But jumping around won't cut it against New England. After all, the game will be on the field, not the sidelines. Then there's quarterback Tom Brady, who was MVP in two Super Bowls.

As always, the Patriots make huge plays and different guys make them.

This time it was Harrison; Rosevelt Colvin stuffing Jerome Bettis on a fourth down AND forcing a fumble on the play; Eugene Wilson with two interceptions and Deion Branch with touchdowns on a 60-yard pass and a 23-yard reverse.

The Eagles and Patriots opened the preseason in New England, with the Patriots winning 24-6, but that was basically scrubs against scrubs _ the starters on each team were in for perhaps 10 plays.

They last played a meaningful game in the second week of the 2003 regular season, with the Patriots winning 31-10 in Philadelphia.

In that game, McNabb completed just 18 of 46 passes for 186 yards, threw two interceptions one returned for a TD lost two fumbles, and heard loud boos for the first time since the day he was drafted in 1999.

We've seen a lot of each other.'' Belichick said.We're certainly not strangers.''.

The Eagles certainly won't roll over. Their coaching staff rivals New England's _ defensive coordinator Jim Johnson did a masterful job in containing Michael Vick.

But even with Owens, they probably are only the NFL's third best team.

The real Super Bowl was played Sunday in Pittsburgh.

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