Carolina has Super Bowl on its mind

Published 12:00 am Monday, January 19, 2004

PHILADELPHIA - The Carolina Panthers made sure their stunning run to the Super Bowl wasn't stopped by a Philadelphia team that flops at the final hurdle.

While the Panthers are headed to their first Super Bowl after a dominating 14-3 victory in the NFC championship game Sunday night, the Eagles fell one win short of the big game for the third straight year.

The Eagles began their streak of conference title appearances in 2001, when the Panthers were 1-15.

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Now Carolina (14-5) is the NFC's best, and will take on New England in Houston on Feb. 1. The Patriots, who beat Indianapolis 24-14 earlier Sunday, won the Super Bowl two years ago - when the Panthers were the NFL's worst team.

''It has been a long ride,'' said receiver Muhsin Muhammad, who caught a 24-yard touchdown pass. ''There have been a lot of good moments, as well as some bad moments. This has to be the best moment yet.''

There have been many nice memories in these playoffs, from a lopsided wild-card victory over Dallas to a thrilling double-overtime win at St. Louis that ended the Rams' 14-game home winning streak.

Add to those:

- Three interceptions by rookie Ricky Manning Jr., as many as he had in the regular season.

- Five sacks, including a second-quarter takedown that separated Donovan McNabb's rib cartilage and wound up sidelining him for the final period.

- A 76-yard rushing effort by Stephen Davis, coming off a quadriceps injury that idled him in the second quarter in St. Louis. His backup, DeShaun Foster, added 60 yards and a powerful 1-yard TD run during which he broke four tackles.

''It's just one step in our journey, and we're not done with our mission yet,'' said Mike Rucker, whose sack hurt McNabb. ''It's the right direction.''

It's a direction the Eagles (13-5) can't seem to master.

They haven't won a league crown since 1960, nor been to the Super Bowl since 1981. They are the first team to lose three straight conference championship games since the Dallas Cowboys from 1980-82. And they are the first team to host consecutive conference championships and lose both since game sites originally were determined by record in 1975.

This defeat might have been the worst.

''It's going to be hard to swallow again,'' McNabb said. ''To think about this all of the offseason again and try to get over this hurdle. …

''For us to get here three times and not be able to go further, it hurts.''

Philadelphia was hurt by some poor routes by receivers Todd Pinkston and James Thrash. It was hurt by a chronic inability to stop the run. And it was hurt by some poor play in its touted secondary, even while Carolina's defensive backs were making the difference.

Particularly Manning, a third-round draft pick who became a regular in the final month of the season.

Manning picked off McNabb's poor pass with 47 seconds remaining in the first half, which ended 7-3. His second interception was even more significant. He stepped in front of Pinkston on a third down from the Carolina 18 and McNabb threw the ball directly to him. Manning celebrated with an Ali Shuffle.