In the aftermath of the surge of emotion that happened on Sunday at Giants Stadium, the reality is this: The Eagles have been down this path in years past. They have lined up for the NFC Championship Game enough times to understand that anything less than a great game, and total concentration, ends in defeat.
And defeat, the horrible taste the Eagles had in 2001, and 2002 and then again in 2003, remains. It never goes away. There is only one goal here, and that quest remains elusive to this organization.
So if you think the Eagles are going to somehow have a hiccup Sunday in Arizona, well, it just isn't going to happen.
"We still have a lot of football to play," said offensive tackle Tra Thomas. "It feels good to beat the Giants and move on, but we have a lot of work ahead."
Thomas has been here before. So has Jon Runyan, L.J. Smith, Brian Westbrook, Donovan McNabb, Brian Dawkins, David Akers, Correll Buckhalter. So has Andy Reid. So has Jim Johnson. So have other coaches.
We all remember the loss in St. Louis, to a certain Kurt Warner. It ended the 2001 season, but it served as a beginning of what was to come. That Eagles team was the up-and-coming darlings of the NFC, led by a young and precocious quarterback and a tough, aggressive defense. Reid was molding that Eagles team into one that would stand the test of time, and when the Eagles led St. Louis at halftime on a McNabb-to-Todd Pinkston touchdown pass, it really seemed possible. But the Rams came back in the second half and won the game and the Eagles steeled their jaws and vowed to fight another day.
In 2002, they fought. And they won. And they set themselves up to close out Veterans Stadium in the most glorious manner: A cold-weather game against the warm-weather Buccaneers and, oh boy, was this going to be the greatest day in Philadelphia sports history. What better way to shutter the Vet than with an Eagles win to send the team to the Super Bowl?
Were you there that day? Were you watching? Brian Mitchell returned the opening kickoff into Tampa Bay territory and Duce Staley scored a few plays later and there was no way in the world the Eagles were going to lose on that day. And then they did. And the memory of Ronde Barber intercepting McNabb and racing down the field -- the entire length of the field -- as the Vet fell silent save for the whooping Bucs on the sidelines still burns. It still hurts.
A year later, the Eagles came right back for more. They battled past Green Bay into the NFC Championship Game once again and then were pounded by the visiting Carolina Panthers. It was a terrible loss to end Year One at Lincoln Financial Field. The fans left the stadium that day demanding that the Eagles make changes in the off-season and, as it turned out, the team did just that.
And in 2004, a day after a snowstorm blanketed Philadelphia and workers shoveled and plowed all day and night to clear the field and the parking lots and the roads, the Eagles trounced the Atlanta Falcons for that break-through moment, and the vision of McNabb lifting the George S. Halas Trophy over his head, with confetti raining down and with tears in eyes is still so powerful, so fresh.
But *that season *ended in disappointment with a loss in the Super Bowl to the Patriots.
It has been an anxious time since the Super Bowl season. A brutal 2005 followed, and then a December run saved 2006 for a team that went two rounds deep into the post-season. Last year, the Eagles were a dramatic disappointment until three straight wins evened the slate at 8-8.
This year? What an amazing turnaround from 5-5-1! And what a feeling it is right now!
But the Cardinals wait. They have the home-field advantage. They don't have to travel across the country this time. They have the revenge factor after losing 48-20 to the Eagles on Thanksgiving Night. They have an explosive offense and a defense that shut down a powerful Carolina offense on Saturday night.
The Cardinals love themselves right now just as much as the Eagles love themselves.
Prepare, then, for a battle on Sunday afternoon.
You get to the NFC Championship Game and things change. The whole world watches A trip to the Super Bowl is at stake. The tension is higher than for another game to that point in the season.
The Eagles know all of this, and the job for the veterans who have been here before is to impart that wisdom to the kids on this team. It isn't easy winning to get to this point, and it sure isn't easy winning this game. The Eagles know the lesson all too well. They know the feeling of abject disappointment. They know that so much momentum to this point means almost nothing.
What matters is that the Eagles prepare every day and that they play with the same urgency that has gotten them to this point.