The Eagles are underdogs this week but, remember, they were underdogs the last time they went to Chicago for a playoff game. It was January 19, 2002, the NFC Divisional Round, and the Bears – playing the final game in the old Soldier Field – were three-point favorites.
The Bears were confident. Their ferocious defense, led by future Hall of Famer Brian Urlacher, allowed the fewest points in the NFL that season. Dick Jauron was named Coach of the Year after leading the team to a 13-3 record in the regular season. The Bears were hot, they were healthy, and they were at home – but the Eagles won the game, 33-19.
"I remember being really confident going into that game," defensive end Hugh Douglas said. "We were underdogs, but we didn't feel like underdogs. We beat Tampa Bay the previous week (31-9 in the Wild Card game) and did not allow a touchdown. The defense was playing really well and even though the Bears were at home and coming off the bye, we felt good about our chances."
The game represented a homecoming for Eagles quarterback Donovan McNabb who attended Chicago's Mount Carmel High School and grew up rooting for the Bears. McNabb rose to the occasion, passing for 262 yards and two touchdowns and ran for another score on a blustery Chicago day when the wind chill was 19 degrees.
"McNabb just killed us," said Bears tackle Blake Brockermeyer. "We had him wrapped up many different times and the guy just made plays."
"He buys a lot of time," Jauron said. "If his receivers are not open initially, he can buy time with his legs and his athleticism. We knew it, we talked about it all week, but he still went out and made the plays. He was the difference today."
McNabb thoroughly enjoyed his return to Chicago, bringing a host of teammates to his parents’ home for dinner on Saturday then winning the game with shocking ease on Sunday. The Eagles outgained the Bears 336 yards to 184 and had a huge advantage in time of possession (36:07 to 23:53).
"Coming back home and seeing family and friends, I knew today I just had to be focused on my job and that was going out, playing well, and leading this team," McNabb said.
McNabb threw touchdown passes to Cecil Martin (13 yards) and Duce Staley (6 yards) and he scored the final touchdown himself on a 5-yard run. Kicker David Akers set an Eagles postseason record by kicking four field goals – 34, 23, 40, and 46 yards – through the gusty winds.
McNabb had one misstep, a pass that was intercepted by Bears cornerback Jerry Azumah who returned it 39 yards for a touchdown early in the third quarter. That put Chicago ahead 14-13 and briefly swung the momentum in the home team's favor, but the Eagles came right back and matched that score with one of their own as McNabb threw the touchdown pass to Staley. The Eagles never trailed again.
"I think Donovan showed that in the biggest games that's what he's all about," head coach Andy Reid said. "That's all part of his journey."
McNabb had help from supporting players like defensive back Rashard Cook who intercepted a pass, special teamer Tim Hauck who forced a fumble, and Quinton Caver who recovered it. Backup tight end Jeff Thomason had a career-long 30-yard reception to set up the Staley touchdown. Center Hank Fraley and guards John Welbourn and Jermane Mayberry won the battle against Chicago's monster defensive tackles Keith Traylor and Ted Washington.
But aside from McNabb, the biggest newsmaker was Douglas who knocked Bears quarterback Jim Miller out of the game in the second quarter. It wasn't unusual for Douglas to put big hits on quarterbacks but this time he did it as a blocker, not a pass rusher. Miller threw a pass intended for wide receiver Dez White, but Eagles safety Damon Moore picked it off.
As Moore returned the interception, Douglas put a block on Miller that sent him to the sidelines with a separated shoulder. Douglas and Miller spent the rest of the afternoon shouting at each other from across the field. Backup Shane Matthews replaced Miller and threw two interceptions that buried the Bears in the second half.
"It is disappointing to work so hard for something and then have something like that happen," Miller said.
Douglas offered no apologies. In his view, it was a clean hit.
"He (Miller) acted like he was gonna try to make the tackle," Douglas said. "He moved and when he moved, I put him down. It was a clean block. All their guys came up to me and got after me. Not to be cruel, but I don't care. He moved and when he did, I hit him. It was part of the game. I was just doing my job."
The league office did not agree. After reviewing the film, the league fined Douglas $35,000.
After the game, while the last of the tailgaters were still packing up in the parking lot, the demolition of old Soldier Field began. They gutted the interior of the historic structure and began construction of a new facility that now sits inside the old walls. Most traditionalists, especially longtime Bears fans, have panned the new Soldier Field.
"I have a lot of memories of that place," McNabb said. "It was kind of cool to play in the last game."
It was cooler still to win.
An award-winning writer and producer, Ray Didinger was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1995. He has also won six Emmy Awards for his work as a writer and producer at NFL Films. The five-time Pennsylvania Sportswriter of the Year is a writer and analyst for NBC Sports Philadelphia. Didinger will provide Eagles fans a unique historical perspective on the team throughout the year for PhiladelphiaEagles.com. You can read all of his Eagles History columns here. He is also the author of The Eagles Encyclopedia: Champions Edition which is in bookstores now.