Late-season run comes to end

PHILADELPHIA - It was fun while it lasted. The thrills and chills elicited by a fantastic three hours Sunday afternoon, never mind the ecstasy to evolve out of the past couple weeks, were replaced by a remarkable spill and a resulting bitter pill.

In a matter of a few precious minutes that seemed to last an eternity, the Green Bay Packers went from shocking the current NFL playoff system to receiving the biggest collective shock they've ever endured.

A few uncharacteristic blunders down the stretch enabled Philadelphia to rally and avoid the dubious tag of the NFC's first No. 1 seed to lose a divisional playoff game since 1990. The Eagles' incredible 20-17 overtime victory at chilly Lincoln Financial Field keeps them at home for the NFC Championship Game next Sunday against No. 3 Carolina.

If they care to, the Packers literally will be watching it at their homes across the country.

"It's frustrating, that's for sure," center Mike Flanagan said forlornly. "Until that last moment, no one expected to have this feeling. We were fully expecting to come to work on Wednesday."

Left-footed David Akers dashed those plans by drilling a 31-yard field goal 4 minutes, 48 seconds into the first sudden-death overtime. Green Bay's only turnover - an interception thrown by Brett Favre - set up the game-winner.

The No. 4 Packers (11-7) were bidding to become the first lower-seeded team to knock out the NFC's regular-season best team on its home field in the second round.

Instead, a crowd of 67,707 that braved wind-chill readings in the single digits warmed to the Packers' somehow falling apart for their fourth straight postseason loss away from Lambeau Field. The streak started with Denver's prevailing 31-24 in late fashion in Super Bowl XXXII six years ago.

Up until the final 72 seconds of the fourth quarter Sunday, the Packers were certain they would have the chance next week to win one more game and advance to the big game in Houston on Feb. 1.

"I mean, I was thinking Super Bowl, going to the NFC Championship," said cornerback Mike McKenzie.

An improbable comeback initiated by the Eagles (13-4), with ample help along the way from their visitors, had the Packers left to only those grand illusions in a solemn locker room afterward.

There won't be a road trip to Carolina and a rematch of the NFC Championship in 1997, a 30-13 Packers win at Lambeau that propelled them to a Super Bowl victory. Wesley Walls was on the losing end of that game for the Panthers. Sunday night, the 37-year-old tight end was brought to more tears.

"You're not ready to go home. That's the obvious," said defensive back Bhawoh Jue. "What makes hurt even more is the fact we had it."

"For it to go the way it did, it's tough," added right tackle Mark Tauscher.

For all but the final five seconds of the 60 minutes of regulation time, the Packers never trailed.

They led 14-0 after the first quarter on a pair of touchdown passes from Favre to Robert Ferguson.

Even when the Eagles rallied to tie the score at 14-14 on a pair of touchdown throws from Donovan McNabb, the latter on the first play of the fourth quarter, the Packers quickly regained the lead.

Ryan Longwell converted a 21-yard field goal with 10:22 to play.

Although the Packers cost themselves with a failed run by Ahman Green on a fourth-down play from the Eagles' 1-yard line late in the first half, the newfound 17-14 lead seemingly would hold up until the end.

A resilient defense that negated McNabb's NFL-record 107 rushing yards with eight sacks of the electric Pro Bowl quarterback forced the Eagles into punts on their next two drives.

The Packers followed with a time-consuming possession that had the makings of a game-clinching drive.

The offense started it at their 16 with 7:58 left. Behind a liberal rushing attack, it moved past midfield after having chewed up more than five minutes.

Faced with their third short-yardage play on third down in the series - a third-and-4 from the Eagles' 44 - the Packers were a first down away from effectively sealing the victory. However, Favre was stopped a yard short as he brought the football down out to the right on a broken play.

"He took off running and tried to make the first down. He didn't quite get it," said head coach Mike Sherman.

Having been burned once on a golden fourth-and-1 opportunity, the Packers ended up punting the football back to Philadelphia.

"You can't put the head coach in that kind of bind," said Larry Beightol, Packers offensive line coach. "You have to get it on third down. Then, you don't worry about it." The Eagles started at their 20 with 2:21 remaining. Sixty-one seconds, a 22-yard run by Duce Staley and a sack of McNabb by Jue later, the Eagles' season hinged on a fourth-and-26 play from their 26.

"Not to sound cocky, but fourth-and-26 ... come on," Jue exclaimed later.

When asked what he possibly could have up his sleeve at that point, Eagle s head coach Andy Reid deadpanned, "To get a first down."

It worked.

McNabb unloaded with a deep pass down the right seam, and Freddie Mitchell jumped to make the 28-yard grab that gave the Eagles a new set of downs and had them thinking perhaps they're the NFC team of destiny.

"Down to the last play, we're never giving up, never stop believing," Mitchell said. "He made a play," Jue said with resignation. "You can't take anything away from that guy. He caught the ball, brought it down, and they moved on."

Indeed, within a few minutes, the Eagles were planning to move on to the NFC title game for the third straight year.

Akers capped the 12-play, 61-yard drive at the end of the fourth quarter with a 37-yard field goal.

For the Packers, it meant overtime for the second straight Sunday in the post-season.

Former Eagles cornerback Al Harris sent shivers through Lambeau Field with his interception and 52-yard return for a touchdown to decide a 33-27 wild-card win over Seattle. A week later, an interception the other way decided the Packers' fate.

A two-man blitz from the left edge forced Favre to unload early on a play-action call to the start the Packers' first drive of the initial 15-minute period, following a three-and-out by the Eagles. The deep pass intended for Javon Walker was easy pickings for safety Brian Dawkins.

"The blitz came right at him. It's tough when they're in your face like that," Flanagan said.

Dawkins ran it back 35 yards, starting the Eagles at the Packers' 34. The Eagles ran five plays, getting the ball to the 14, before calling on Akers for the decisive field goal.

"We knew the finality of it," Beightol said. "Hey, you win, you go on. You lose, you go home."

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