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Defense lets down Eagles in championship game loss

GLENDALE, Ariz. -- Defense carried the Philadelphia Eagles to the NFC Championship Game. It let them down once they got there.

Costly breakdowns helped send the Eagles to a 32-25 loss to the Arizona Cardinals on Sunday afternoon, Philadelphia's fourth defeat in five conference title games since 2002.

Devastating decline


The Eagles had a dominant defense during their first two playoff outings, but in the NFC Championship Game, the unit came up short:

Sunday vs. Cardinals ...

  » Points allowed: 32

  » Yards allowed: 369

  » Takeaways: 1

... First two playoff rounds

  » Points allowed/game: 12.5

  » Yards allowed/game: 304

  » Takeaways/game: 2.5

A unit that limited the Minnesota Vikings and New York Giants to a total of 25 points in two postseason victories gave up 24 in the first half.

"This one hurts," strong safety Quintin Mikell said in the Eagles' tomblike locker room. "You can't spot them 24 points."

Here's a summary of Arizona's five first-half possessions: touchdown, punt, touchdown, touchdown, field goal. The Cardinals settled for the field goal only because time ran out in the second quarter.

They'll play Pittsburgh in the Super Bowl in Tampa in two weeks after the Steelers beat the Baltimore Ravens 23-14 in the AFC championship later Sunday.

The Eagles' defense, ranked third in the NFL during the regular season, showed flashes of its old form in the second half. Philadelphia harried Arizona quarterback Kurt Warner and forced the Cardinals to punt on three straight possessions after halftime.

As the defense stiffened, the Eagles rallied for a 25-24 lead early in the fourth quarter behind three touchdown passes by Donovan McNabb.

But the once-reliable defense couldn't make it stand up.

The Eagles let the Cardinals march 72 yards on 14 plays, taking the lead on an 8-yard touchdown pass from Warner to Tim Hightower with 2:53 to go.

"I expected the guys to step up," Eagles coach Andy Reid said. "They expected to step up. It didn't happen."

On the final drive, the Eagles let Arizona convert on two short third downs and a fourth-and-1 at midfield.

"It's not like us to let teams drive down on us like that with the game on the line," cornerback Joselio Hanson said. "It makes the loss even tougher for the defense."

The Eagles' defenders seemed stunned by the outcome. Defensive end Trent Cole and defensive tackle Brodrick Bunkley sat on folding chairs in full uniform long after the game, staring into their lockers as teammates quietly dressed and headed out to the bus.

"This is a very sudden thing when you lose in the playoffs," Reid said. "The hard reality is there's one happy team at the end of the year. You're in the playoffs, you expect to move on."

The defense had helped carry the Eagles through two rounds. Philadelphia forced five turnovers -- three interceptions and two fumble recoveries -- in its first two playoff games but none against the Cardinals, who kept the blitzing Eagles off Warner for most of the afternoon.

The Eagles sacked Warner twice, but for much of the game they put little pressure on him. The Eagles also failed to intercept any of Warner's 28 passes.

"Kurt's a veteran quarterback and he's used to the big stage," defensive end Victor Abiamiri said. "He's been here before. He did a good job of protecting the football."

The most glaring defensive blunder came in the second quarter, when free safety Quintin Demps fell down on a 62-yard flea-flicker, allowing Cardinals star Larry Fitzgerald to catch an underthrown ball and waltz into the end zone.

"We practiced those (trick plays), but they had a good one," Mikell said. "We had a guy there, but (Fitzgerald) just went up and made a play."

It was one of a record-tying three touchdown catches for Fitzgerald, whom the Eagles simply couldn't cover. He caught nine passes for 152 yards.

Copyright 2009 by The Associated Press

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