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Eagles rest starters, still beat Falcons

PHILADELPHIA (Dec. 31, 2006) -- The Philadelphia Eagles got their bye a week early.

Thanks to the Detroit Lions, Jeff Garcia and the rest of Philadelphia's starters rested up for the playoffs while the backups finished off a remarkable late-season run with a 24-17 victory over Atlanta on Sunday.

The Eagles (10-6) clinched the NFC East title less than five minutes into the game when Dallas lost 39-31 to the lowly Lions. So, coach Andy Reid pulled his starters to keep them healthy for next Sunday's first-round matchup against the New York Giants (8-8).

A.J. Feeley threw for a career-best 321 yards and three touchdown passes to help the Eagles win their fifth straight game without Donovan McNabb. The Falcons (7-9) played almost the entire second half without Michael Vick, who sprained his right ankle on the first play of the third quarter.

"We didn't get the bye week we wanted, but we were able to rest some of the starters," Eagles linebacker Jeremiah Trotter said.

One play after Matt Schaub's 9-yard TD pass to Alge Crumpler tied it at 17 for Atlanta, Feeley connected with Hank Baskett on an 89-yard TD pass that gave the Eagles a 24-17 lead early in the fourth quarter. Feeley hit a wide-open Baskett in stride and the rookie wideout streaked untouched down the right sideline.

Baskett finished with seven catches for 177 yards.

The Falcons had a first down at the Eagles 7 with two minutes left, but couldn't score. Schaub tripped and was sacked on third down and his next pass fell incomplete.

"We're not done," Reid said. "It's a nice one to have, but there's not a lot of time to think about it with the Giants coming in."

When McNabb tore a knee ligament in a loss to Tennessee on Nov. 19, it seemed Philadelphia's playoff hopes went down with him. But Garcia has been outstanding, leading the Eagles to a 5-1 record in his six starts.

A three-time Pro Bowl selection during five seasons in San Francisco, Garcia invigorated the locker room with his fiery personality. His pinpoint accuracy and quick decision-making were a perfect fit for Philly's version of the West Coast offense.

In brief action against the Falcons, Garcia completed one pass for 29 yards to Brian Westbrook and David Akers kicked a 41-yard field goal on that drive. Garcia then watched Feeley and the second-string play a game that resembled a preseason finale.

"We expected to come out and earn the NFC East championship, but we were able to coast," Garcia said.

Feeley's 14-yard TD pass to Matt Schobel gave the Eagles a 10-7 lead in the first quarter. He hit rookie Jason Avant on a 5-yard scoring pass to make it 17-10 late in the second quarter.

Atlanta led 7-3 after Vick tossed a 7-yard TD pass to Warrick Dunn.

Eliminated from playoff contention a night earlier when the Giants beat Washington, the Falcons looked like a team with its bags packed and ready for vacation.

While the Eagles are heading to the playoffs after winning the division for the fifth time in six years, the Falcons face an uncertain offseason. Coach Jim Mora's status already was tenuous before he angered owner Arthur Blank by telling a Seattle radio station he would be interested in the University of Washington job, even if the Falcons were in the playoffs -- and without the position being open.

Mora apologized for his comments, saying his intended sarcasm in the radio interview was not understood. But the damage may be irreparable.

"I have a strong passion for this organization. I love this organization," Mora said. "Of course I want to be here. It's all I've ever wanted."

It was only two years ago the Falcons played in the NFC Championship Game, a 27-10 loss in Philadelphia. But they were 8-8 last year and lost seven of nine after a 5-2 start this season.

"We dedicated ourselves to really having a good season this year," Vick said. "I feel like every guy in that room put the time in. It's disappointing because things didn't go the way we expected them to go."

The Eagles also struggled after a strong start. They opened 4-1 before losing five of six, but it turned our great in the end.

When the final score from Texas Stadium flashed on the scoreboard early in the first quarter, fans cheered wildly and hurled derisive chants at the Cowboys. Now, the Philly faithful can direct their venom toward the Giants. The teams split two meetings this year, with each winning on the road.

Though finishing in first place was quite an accomplishment for the Eagles this season, many veteran players didn't even wear the championship hats or T-shirts.

"We didn't do too much celebrating because this is just the first step," Trotter said. "We want the big one."

Notes: Philadelphia is 22-8 in December since 2000. ... Brian Dawkins played in his 157th game, tying Guy Morriss for fourth-most in team history. ... Vick is 1-3 against the Eagles, including playoff losses in 2002 and 2004. ... The Eagles' five offensive linemen started every game for the second time in team history. The other time was in 2000. ... Baskett is the first Eagles player to have two TD catches of more than 80 yards in the same season. He had an 87-yard TD catch against Dallas on Oct. 8.

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