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WP: Mark Maske: Eagles Sprint to Fast Start


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Eagles Sprint to Fast Start

By Mark Maske

Washington Post Staff Writer


PHILADELPHIA -- The Philadelphia Eagles were the only NFL team to reach the playoffs last season after an 0-2 beginning. This time around, they're making things a little easier.

They're 2-0 and alone in first place in the NFC East after beating the Minnesota Vikings, 27-16, Monday night at Lincoln Financial Field. They must go on the road now for consecutive games at Detroit and Chicago before their bye week. They have a short week of preparations to ready for Sunday's game against the improved Lions, but they're feeling good about themselves after their expensive offseason upgrades to a team that lost the last three NFC Championship games.

"What a difference a year makes,'' quarterback Donovan McNabb said after the Monday night game. "A lot of us were able to learn from the mistakes we made last year [during the 0-2 start that included lopsided home losses to Tampa Bay and New England]."

Said tailback Brian Westbrook: "We knew this would be a good test for us, especially on a Monday night. It feels good to be 2-0. It's the opposite of last season. We still had confidence after we lost our first two games last season, but it was a bad taste in our mouths. This year, we're on a roll.''

Wide receiver Terrell Owens has fit in seamlessly, at least so far, in Coach Andy Reid's spread-the-wealth offense. He didn't complain Monday when the ball wasn't coming his way very often and he was in danger of losing his high-profile receiver duel with the Vikings' Randy Moss.

"I knew it was coming eventually,'' Owens said. "I felt like I was going to make a big play somewhere in the game. I was patient. I was open earlier in the game. But Donovan was flushed out of the pocket, and he was completing his passes. As long as we're productive, I'm fine.''

Owens said that the Eagles had some sideline discussions about how to take advantage of the aggressive approach of Vikings cornerback Antoine Winfield. The chance came with just less than eight minutes to go in the game. Owens faked a short pattern, then went deep. Winfield bought the fake, allowing Owens to get behind him. Winfield stumbled as the ball arrived and Owens hauled in -- sort of -- McNabb's pass for a 45-yard touchdown that gave the Eagles a 24-9 lead. Owens appeared to be juggling the ball as he went out of bounds, but the officials ruled it was a touchdown and the Vikings didn't challenge.

"It was a double move, knowing Winfield is pretty aggressive,'' McNabb said. "Winfield bit on the [fake] slant. I just tried to put the ball in position where only T.O. could get it.''

McNabb has six touchdown passes in the Eagles' first two games, four of them to Owens. But others are doing their part. Westbrook had 69 rushing yards on 12 carries Monday and 69 receiving yards on five catches.

"We have a lot more weapons, but we're still having a balanced offense,'' said McNabb, who threw a first-quarter touchdown pass to tight end L.J. Smith and ran for a touchdown on a third-quarter scramble. "We're executing on all cylinders right now.''

McNabb and Owens emerged victorious in their individual battles Monday. McNabb completed 19 of 28 passes for 245 yards, while Vikings quarterback Daunte Culpepper went 37 of 47 for 343 yards. But McNabb had no turnovers while Culpepper threw an interception and fumbled twice, once at the Eagles' goal line. The Vikings lost that fumble but recovered Culpepper's other one.

Moss had eight catches but amassed only 69 yards, and didn't get into the end zone until catching a four-yard touchdown throw by Culpepper with 3 1/2 minutes to play. Owens had four receptions for 79 yards, and, unlike Moss, didn't hurt his team. Moss killed a Vikings' drive in the fourth quarter by unnecessarily shoving Eagles cornerback Roderick Hood for an offensive pass-interference penalty.

"They can say he's the best and all that other stuff,'' Owens said. "But all I know is I'm the best for the Eagles.''

The Philadelphia defense harassed Culpepper all evening. Defensive end Jevon Kearse was credited with only two tackles and didn't have a sack, but he pressured Culpepper regularly. "It looked like he was around the quarterback an awful lot,'' Reid said.

Said Vikings Coach Mike Tice: "They doubled [Moss]. We were not able to get the ball deep on any type of single coverage on him. We had a couple of opportunities. But it seems like on the opportunities we had, the quarterback was running toward the line of scrimmage, trying to save his life. It was tough to time the two things together -- the single coverage and protection. Basically when we got some single coverage, they were bringing some guys and we didn't hold up very well.''

Young Eagles cornerbacks Lito Sheppard and Sheldon Brown were solid in coverage, and linebackers Nate Wayne and Mark Simoneau combined to knock the ball loose from Culpepper just before he was able to cross the goal line on a second-quarter scramble. That was the biggest of a pair of first-half goal-line stands by the Eagles. The Vikings twice had first downs at the Philadelphia 2-yard line, and emerged with only a single field goal.

"You need to put the ball in the end zone on the road,'' said Tice, whose club had a third-quarter touchdown negated by a holding penalty on center Matt Birk. "You can't go out there against a good team like this and expect to win kicking field goals.''

Said Eagles defensive tackle Corey Simon: "We really got a lot of pressure up front. We blitzed them. I think we got a lot of pressure on them. When we can do that, we allow our defensive backs to do what they did. They did a great job of not giving up the big play. Their [the Vikings'] offense is predicated on the big play, and we didn't give it up.'' . . .

Tice said he didn't challenge Owens's touchdown because the Vikings coaches in the booth didn't see a replay until after the extra point and kickoff, when it was too late.

"We saw the replay after the kickoff,'' Tice said. "And, sure, we would have challenged it then. I don't know what you want me to do otherwise. You can second-guess me for not challenging it, but I couldn't see it [the play] down in the corner . . . After the kickoff, my guys said he was bobbling it and out of bounds. But that didn't help any of us at the point when it happened.'' . . . Culpepper's two fumbles Monday gave him 70 in 60 career games. . . .

Vikings kicker Morten Andersen played in his 340th NFL game, tying him with George Blanda for the most in league history . . .

The Vikings didn't match their performance from their season-opening triumph over the Dallas Cowboys, in which Culpepper threw five touchdown passes. But the Eagles said they nevertheless were impressed.

"That was a good ballclub out there,'' McNabb said. "They're a team we're maybe going to see again'' in the playoffs.

Williams Hearing Today

Arbitrator Richard Bloch is scheduled to hear arguments by attorneys for the league and the NFL Players Association today in the Miami area in the Dolphins' grievance against Ricky Williams. The team is attempting to recoup $8.6 million from the tailback, who retired just before training camp.

Brown Done?

The Cleveland Browns faced a difficult choice when they had the top overall selection in the 2000 draft, trying to pick between Penn State teammates Courtney Brown and LaVar Arrington. There were rumblings that Arrington's camp told the Browns not to pick him. But Cleveland went with Brown primarily, it seemed, because club officials believed that a dominant pass rusher was worth more than a dominant linebacker in today's NFL.

It has ended up being a calamitous choice. Arrington has yet to add the polish and consistency necessary to be one of the sport's top two or three defenders, as he has the talent to be. But he has become a perennial Pro Bowl player for the Washington Redskins, while Brown is headed toward ending his fourth straight season on the injured reserve list.

The Browns announced late Monday that Brown has a Lisfranc injury in his left foot, a mid-foot fracture named for the French doctor who first described the injury. Brown is scheduled to undergo surgery today and will have a six-month recovery period, according to the Browns.

A career that began with such promise is in serious doubt now. Brown has played only 47 games in five seasons, and he has 17 sacks. He hasn't played all 16 games in a season since his rookie year, and he never has had more than six sacks in a season.

"He apologized for letting the team down,'' Browns Coach Butch Davis said during his news conference Monday. "I don't know how you can hold yourself personally responsible for injuries. He has done everything that we have asked of him. He is the best-conditioned athlete. He gives great effort. No one cares more than Courtney Brown does. He has just had some hard luck.''

McCardell Gains Leverage

The pressure is increasing on the Bucs -- perhaps even from within their own locker room -- to get holdout wide receiver Keenan McCardell to join the team now that they have started 0-2 and their offense has managed only three field goals in 25 possessions.

"When you go two games without a touchdown [and] you are missing a Pro Bowl wide receiver, I'm sure there will be some chatter,'' Buccaneers Coach Jon Gruden said during his news conference Monday. "But there are certain issues that are out of our hands. This is one of those. We will just have to deal with the commotion or the chatter that is going on internally the best we can.''

The Buccaneers have been adamant that they won't trade or release McCardell or rework a contract that pays him $2.5 million this season and $2.75 million next season. He wants a raise to about $4.4 million per year.

"You have to play by the rules in the NFL,'' Gruden said. "There is a salary cap. You have certain rules and certain things that you have to understand. If it were up to me, I would give everybody the money. It's not my money. I would give them all the money to get the best players in here. We are in a certain situation that is very clear, I think.''

Gruden said he had a sleepless night Sunday on the heels of a 10-6 loss to Seattle before announcing Monday that veteran Brad Johnson would remain the club's starting quarterback ahead of second-year pro Chris Simms, who relieved Johnson against the Seahawks, for this weekend's game at Oakland.

"You know what? I feel good,'' Gruden said. "I feel good about the way we're competing. I mean, we are playing hard. We're flying around. We're finishing plays. We're not committing penalties. Discipline has been good. It's just a couple of turnovers. It's a play here, a play there that's stunting a drive or setting us back behind in down and distance. And somebody, somewhere, in key situations we need to step up now and make a big play to turn the tide of a football game. Am I disappointed? Yes, I'm very disappointed. I have a lot of pride in what I do also, as do these football players. So it's a challenge right now, one that has to be met.''

Saints Turn To Stecker, Carter

The New Orleans Saints will have to rely on Aaron Stecker and Ki-Jana Carter to carry their running game with tailback Deuce McAllister sidelined for about five weeks by a high ankle sprain. . . .

The Cowboys must lean on veteran tailback Eddie George now that rookie Julius Jones is sidelined for two months by a broken shoulder blade and could be headed to the injured reserve list. George has looked old and slow at times since being signed by the Cowboys in July following his release by Tennessee. But he was a bit more productive in Sunday's win at home over Cleveland, with 62 rushing yards on 18 carries.

"The more I practice, the more comfortable I feel," George said after that game. "I'm settling down. The [offensive] line gave me some room to run and gave me some options. We wanted to establish the run. We wanted to catch them off guard.'' . . .

The Jacksonville Jaguars have totaled only 20 points in their wins over Buffalo and Denver. They are the first NFL team since the 1942 Chicago Cardinals to start a season 2-0 while scoring 20 or fewer points. . . . Jerry Rice's streak of 274 consecutive games with at least one reception, which dated back to 1985 and ended in Oakland's win over the Bills on Sunday, is 91 games more than the second-longest such streak in league history, Art Monk's 183-gamer for the Redskins, New York Jets and Eagles between 1983 and '95.

Giants Still "Bad"

Winning covers up many problems, at least for a while, and the New York Giants were a happy, cohesive bunch after getting seven turnovers and beating the Redskins, 20-14, on Sunday at Giants Stadium. Defensive end Michael Strahan even presented a game ball to Coach Tom Coughlin, whose heavy-handed ways have met resistance from a number of the club's veterans, including Strahan.

But longtime NFL running back and kick returner Brian Mitchell, who was with the Giants last season and once considered signing with Jacksonville as a free agent to play for Coughlin before, he says, being presented with Coughlin's voluminous list of rules for his players, said Monday on a Philadelphia radio station that he still believes the team is in for a long season full of losses and tension between the coach and his players.

"When you get that many turnovers and still only win by six points, that shows how bad you are," Mitchell said. . . . .

The broken leg suffered Sunday by Jaguars defensive end Paul Spicer leaves open the possibility of Jacksonville eventually re-signing Tony Brackens, the franchise's all-time sacks leader who has been released by the team twice this year. Spicer is scheduled to undergo surgery today, and the Jaguars have offered no timetable for his return. He told teammates that he plans to play again this season. Jaguars Coach Jack Del Rio, after reviewing the game tapes, did not complain about the play on which Spicer was hurt, concluding that the injury was accidental after initially questioning whether it might have resulted from Denver's controversial blocking techniques. . . . .

Quarterback Drew Brees likely will be back in San Diego's lineup for this weekend's game at Denver after suffering a concussion in Sunday's loss to the Jets. He has another round of medical tests scheduled for Wednesday. . . . .

Ken Dorsey is scheduled to get his second straight start at quarterback for San Francisco on Sunday at Seattle in place of the injured Tim Rattay, and 49ers Coach Dennis Erickson is leaving open the possibility that Dorsey could keep the starting job if he plays well.

Holmes Hurting

Kansas City could be without tailback Priest Holmes against Houston this weekend, Chiefs Coach Dick Vermeil said during his news conference Monday. Holmes has a sprained left ankle that he hurt in the fourth quarter of Sunday's loss at home to Carolina, which dropped the Chiefs' record to 0-2 and ended a 13-game regular-season winning streak at home. But Vermeil said the Chiefs had Holmes on the sideline in the final minutes of the Panthers game by choice, opting to go with Derrick Blaylock while trying to play catch-up, not because of the injury. Vermeil indicated he didn't even know about the injury at the time. . . .

The Broncos obtained defensive tackle Ellis Johnson from Atlanta in a trade Monday that sent a conditional 2005 draft pick to the Falcons. Johnson, who had eight sacks last season, did not report to the Falcons because of a contract dispute but plans to report to the Broncos, who had been looking to add depth to their defensive line even before end Trevor Pryce sat out the Jacksonville game Sunday because of a pinched nerve in his back. Pryce is scheduled to be examined today in Los Angeles by back specialist Robert Watkins.

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