Fourth and deliver for QB

ROB LONGLEY, in Philadelphia

, Last Updated: 9:39 AM ET

The excuses were at the ready should Donovan McNabb have felt inclined to say "yeah, but" for any of his three failings on the brink of the Super Bowl. In St. Louis three years ago, the quarterback was making his first appearance in the NFC Championship. His Philadelphia Eagles lost 29-24, but the verdict was that McNabb's time would come soon enough.

At home in Philly two years ago, the former Syracuse star was playing in just his second game after returning from a broken leg. The Eagles lost 27-10 to Tampa Bay, hampered by McNabb being as mobile as an upright.

And last year against the Carolina Panthers, the quarterback suffered a painful torn rib cartilage late in the second quarter to stunt the offence in a 14-3 loss.

McNabb doesn't grasp for excuses because he's not that kind of athlete. He also knows that for his fourth crack at an NFC Championship in four years, there will be none.

"Sometimes you're not able to do everything that you set out to do, but I would never make any excuses," said McNabb, whose Eagles are 5 1/2-point favourites over the Atlanta Falcons. "I'm not making any guarantees .... with me being healthy, it gives us a better opportunity to win."

It is undeniable that McNabb is one of the NFL's elite at his position. As he moves into seasoned veteran status, the crutch of youth is no longer on his side, however.

When the snow is cleared from the Linc for today's 3 p.m. kickoff, McNabb's grace period is up.

His opponent, the Falcons' Michael Vick, once idolized him. And if it was the Eagle who defined the now hip genre of the running quarterback, it seems that Vick has refined it.

"This is kind of the new generation," McNabb said. "Guys that are able to do a little bit more than just sit back in the pocket and pass the ball. Things have changed, and it's going to keep on changing."

At stake is a Super Bowl berth for one of the two, but there is clearly more on the line for McNabb. Should the Falcons lose, Vick will get a pass, just as his idol did three years ago. Should McNabb lose he'll become just the second quarterback to start in 10 playoff games and not one Super Bowl.

McNabb never has been better than he was in 2004. Sure, it has been lost in the sick numbers put up by Indianapolis Colts' quarterback Peyton Manning, but who is still playing?

He became just the third player to have five games with four touchdown passes in a season. He became the first quarterback in league history to throw for more than 30 touchdowns and less than 10 interceptions. Next month, he will go to his fifth consecutive Pro Bowl.

If McNabb loses a fourth consecutive NFC title game today though, it will be the hardest one to shake. Three other NFL quarterbacks have taken their team to four championships in a row and all have made it through at least once.

McNabb has made promises this week that he won't hold back, acknowledging that in the past the Eagles may have been too conservative.

He has vowed to "set the tempo", and come out with "an aggressive attack" and to "take the shots" downfield.

In other words, play like the Eagles do in the regular season not the post-season.

"(Past experience) is helping us out in so many ways because now guys realize that you just have to be yourself," McNabb said. "The person next to you is depending on you to be the player they have seen in the 16-week season."

So which McNabb will it be today -- the one we've seen since September or the one who has just one TD pass and five interceptions in three trips to the NFC Championship?

"I have visualized actually winning the game and holding up the trophy and getting hit by confetti and having all of our fans getting excited," McNabb said on Friday.

This afternoon, he best hope the dream turns to reality.


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