SOMEWHERE, USA --We are nearly wheels up as I write this and the team charter is filling up. I wish I could describe the excitement level here. I wish I could convey to you how it feels to be boarding again, to continue this amazing ride, to go out to Arizona and hope to take the next step for a football team that has already come so far.
Everyone believes in Green. Everyone. You have felt the electricity as the Eagles came down the stretch of the regular season, capped it off with the never-to-be-forgotten December 28 and then defeated Minnesota and New York on the road.
And now the Eagles are here, on the way to Arizona for the NFC Championship Game.
The team is on the airplane, an A330 on Northwest Airlines, and it's all systems go. This airplane, by the way, is one of many boarding on Friday and leaving Philadelphia's frigid climate for the perfection of the Arizona desert. That is the setting -- closed Dome or not -- for the Eagles' fifth trip to the NFC title game in the last eight years.
After the initial smiles and hellos and handshakes as everyone gathers, the rest of the trip is all routine. Andy Reid keeps it that way. There are absolutely no surprises as the buses wait on the tarmac when the plane comes to a stop, the police escort from the airport to the hotel and then the familiarity for the players and coaches of the next day and a half: Down time mixed with meetings as kickoff nears. The team sets up its athletic training room, has its dining hall and makes sure the players have as much Gatorate and water and whatever fluids players like to use to hydrate before game time.
On Saturday, the Eagles will have a walk-through practice at the University of Phoenix Stadium and then they will have a normal Saturday on the road: Dinner, meetings, chill time and a good night's sleep.
What waits in Arizona? A team playing very good football, for one thing. The Eagles know that. I truly believe they know that, and that they understand that only an "A" game wins a trip to the Super Bowl. A lot of Eagles fans are going to be out in the desert, and that home-away-from-home feeling is going to be welcomed.
Friday morning was a blur: A really good practice in the bubble -- temperatures turned up, preparing for Arizona while the 3-degree wind-chill factor outside punished -- and then the NFC Championship Game press conference and the tried-and-true storylines. (An aside: For the life of me, I can't understand the line of questions that deal with the future. Why ask Brian Dawkins about the legacy of his career? The man is preparing for a huge game on Sunday!)
The players and coaches had just enough time to get showered, dress, eat lunch and finish packing for this trip to make the plane in time. This is a business trip and as Greg Lewis walks up and down the aisles yelling out "Take a seat! Take a seat!" and stops and throws a few jabs into my arm and chest, laughing, the tone is set.
Serious business, but also the right kind of attitude. Ready to go. Not too tight. Just on edge enough now to peak emotionally on Sunday at, oh, about 1 p.m. Arizona time.
I feel like there is lot of time to still talk about the key matchups and the ebbs and flows of the game. I feel like this, though, right now: It is football and while we can delve into all of the questions -- "How will the Eagles cover wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald?" -- the essence of football is true here. The team that plays the best game wins. We have all been here enough, right? The Eagles have lost three of four NFC Championship Games because, in those three games, they didn't play well enough to win. They made too many mistakes of the very basic kind -- tackling, catching, mental focus, etc.
There is also, as I muse now while my mind wanders, a time to wonder how strong the connection is between the teams of the past and the team of now. Of course, some of the names and some of the philosophies are the same. The Eagles have experience in this game at many positions on the field and on the sidelines and in the personnel side.
But does what the Eagles did in 2004 really matter now? For that matter, does what the Eagles did last week matter on Sunday? Is there really a correlation from one game to the next?
I don't know. All I know, at least I think I know, is that if the Eagles bring the same urgency and intensity and sense of purpose to this game that they've had the last two weeks, or, for that matter, in six of the last seven weeks, they're going to be OK. It is about the Eagles here, for me. It is not about the Cardinals. I go in expecting to take Arizona's best shot. I go in thinking that if the Eagles play their best game and the Cardinals play their best game ...
But, whatever. I've been thinking the same thing all week. I've been obsessing thinking about how Jim Johnson is going to play Kurt Warner and the Arizona offense, and I've been saying to myself that the Eagles defense is well-balanced and fast and ready for anything the Cardinals throw, or run, at it.
Run the ball. Go ahead. The Eagles have been excellent against the run for most of this year. Pass it. Fine. Just make sure Warner gets plenty of protection and that he doesn't make a mistake, because the Eagles have been all around the ball this year.
On offense, the Eagles have to get it going early. They have to win the battle at the line of scrimmage. They had battles in Minnesota and against the Giants against heavy blitzing and some really excellent schemes and total defenses. Arizona is winning in the playoffs because it is taking the football away and dominating there.
I would love to see the Eagles come out and establish a personality early. I want to see Donovan McNabb get into his groove immediately. I want to see how quick and spry Brian Westbrook looks after two games in which he has gained an average of less than 2 yards per rushing attempt. I want to see the receivers win the coverage battle. I want to see Correll Buckhalter on the field, and more than anything I want to see third downs converted and red-zone chances turned into touchdowns.
The Eagles need to win the special teams, of course, from the very start. Who has the ball first? I don't care, but part of me wants to see the defense go out there early and set a tone. Either way, fine. Just win field position.
See? It's just football. And I'm just daydreaming somewhere up in the sky, team intact, team ready, making progress toward the site of the next great challenge.
Sit back. Relax. Hope time goes quickly ...