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Who needs a go-to receiver? McNabb, Eagles haven't this season

Philadelphia Eagles management once gave quarterback Donovan McNabb a go-to wide receiver -- Terrell Owens.

McNabb made it to the only Super Bowl of his 10-year career with T.O. in the 2004 season -- the QB also had his best year in terms of touchdown passes (31) and passer rating (104.7) -- but the drama that came with Owens resulted in his departure from the team and the Eagles' return to a receiver-by-committee approach.

It's not as if Philadelphia hasn't tried to find McNabb a Randy Moss or even a Wes Welker-type of receiver: Reggie Brown, Kevin Curtis and now DeSean Jackson all have been brought in to be breakthrough pass-catching threats. None has emerged, although Jackson isn't far off. The Eagles seem no worse for wear, though.

McNabb, who passed for a career-high 3,916 yards during the regular season, is on a seven-week tear while throwing to everybody with eligible-receiver status. In the process, he has Philadelphia one win away from playing in Super Bowl XLIII.

"We use all the guys that we have," Curtis said. "Right now, we've got five or six of us [wide receivers] who are pretty much active. I don't think there are too many teams that carry six wide receivers on the roster. If you're suited up, there's a good chance you'll catch a ball or two."

The most telling example of the Eagles' receiving situation will be on display Sunday, when they visit Arizona for the NFC Championship Game against the Cardinals.

On the opposing roster are three 1,000-yard receivers, and two of them, Larry Fitzgerald and Anquan Boldin, are Pro Bowl picks. Despite Fitzgerald and Boldin's dominating presence, Steve Breaston still managed to surpass the 1,000-yard mark in the final week of the regular season.

In contrast, Philadelphia's top receivers during the regular season were Jackson (62 catches for 912 yards) and running back Brian Westbrook (54 catches for 402 yards).

While the Cardinals have the star power and big-play ability at receiver, the Eagles' assembly line of pass-catchers has been highly productive. During the regular season, Arizona threw for 4,674 yards on 630 attempts, a 7.7-yard average. Philadelphia totaled 3,911 yards on 606 attempts, a 6.7-yard average. The Cardinals and Eagles were ranked second and sixth, respectively, in the NFL in pass offense. And in two playoff games, Philadelphia (500) actually has more passing yards than Arizona (486).

The Cardinals and Eagles are passing teams that have sprinkled in the run a bit more over the past month. Arizona built its house with dynamic, pre-fabricated material that didn't require much labor. Philadelphia constructed its structure brick-by-brick, shingle-by-shingle.

"The two offenses are really completely different in terms of their dynamics," said Atlanta Falcons coach Mike Smith, whose team lost to the Eagles in the regular season and the Cardinals in the wild-card round. "Arizona has the speed and the difference-makers. Fitzgerald, he can make all the catches and the acrobatic catches. The tough thing about the Eagles is the more options that you have to defend, the more difficult it is, especially if Donovan's got the time to throw. Time is the enemy of the defense.

"Their rookie, DeSean Jackson, is an explosive guy. He can hit a home run at any time. He doesn't have the experience of Larry Fitzgerald, but he's sudden and he's fast and he's a good route runner. They have other weapons in Kevin Curtis and Jason Avant; he is someone Donovan seems to be looking to more of late."

Indeed, Avant is someone McNabb is looking to more. So is tight end Brent Celek -- he and Avant each have nine catches (for 158 total yards and one touchdowns) in the playoffs to lead the Eagles.

In Philadelphia's 48-20 victory over Arizona on Thanksgiving night, Celek only had one catch. Again, he has nine in two playoff games.

"We have a lot of good players on our offense, and when they (opposing defenses) key on them, I guess I've had some opportunities," said Celek, a second-year pro from Cincinnati. "I give credit to Don because he's thrown great passes every time I've been open."

There has been a huge gap between Fitzgerald (14 receptions) and the rest of Arizona's receivers in the playoffs. With Boldin nursing a hamstring injury, Breaston has six catches, wide receiver Jerheme Urban and running back J.J. Arrington each have four (for 19 total yards), and the returns diminish from there.

Philadelphia doesn't have that issue. After Avant and Celek, the Eagles have Curtis with eight receptions and Jackson and Westbrook each with five. It's a true showcase of a West Coast offense, as McNabb finds whoever is open -- usually on shorter, rhythmic routes.

The emergence of Avant and Celek are prime examples. They were basically check-down options during the regular season. Now they're go-to guys. Avant made a 21-yard reception on a third-and-20 play during the third quarter of the Eagles' divisional-round victory over the New York Giants last Sunday. That not only led to a 35-yard David Akers field goal that gave the Eagles an insurmountable 13-11 lead, it got them away from their 15-yard line.

With the running game contributing just 126 yards in two playoff games, the abundance of receivers actually has helped balance the Eagles' approach.

"A lot of teams have that main receiver who can be targeted," Curtis said. "The defense knows where the ball is going. We don't really have a main receiver to be targeted. Spreading it around makes it tougher because the defense can't really single out one guy, especially if that guys comes out of the backfield or from the tight end position. It's really hard for the defense to know where the ball is going to be."

Still, the Eagles' most dangerous threat Sunday is their most dangerous threat every week: Westbrook. In the Thanksgiving night victory over Arizona, he ran for 110 yards and two touchdowns and also made three catches, two for scores. Things are a lot different now for both teams, especially the Cardinals, whose run defense has been stellar in the playoffs.

The threat of Westbrook, though, remains the same.

"What he presents to everybody is, when they go out and put the personnel groupings in on defense, do you count him as a running back or wide receiver?" Philadelphia tight end L.J. Smith said. "They can line up in a one-back set when you think they have two-back personnel. You can get caught in base defense and get into some mismatches with the linebackers."

Should the Eagles' receivers play a role in a championship-game victory, the committee will have proved to serve the team well. If not -- especially if Fitzgerald continues his breathtaking playoff run or if Boldin rebounds from his injury with a big game -- the Eagles could begin, again, to find McNabb a go-to receiver.

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