PHILADELPHIA -- The Philadelphia Eagles are all too familiar with the road they are traveling. They make it to the NFC championship game, then get detoured.
Two years ago, the St. Louis Rams got in the way. Last year, it was the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
On Sunday, the Eagles play the Carolina Panthers for a spot in the Super Bowl, a place the Eagles haven't been since the 1980 season. Do the two recent failures help? Or just add to the pressure?
"All of the guys that have been here the last three, four or five years - we have a bad taste in our mouth from being able to reach this point three years in a row, and the past two years we all know what happened," running back Duce Staley said. "We weren't able to advance.
"It's just a sad situation for us, because as we look back over our careers after we retire, we're going to say, 'You know, we had a chance to get there that many times and didn't take advantage of it."'
To take advantage this time, the Eagles (13-4) know they must block out the hype surrounding this game in a city desperate for a sports championship after a drought of more than two decades. They need to ignore the extra pressure of playing at home and being favored, just as they were against the Bucs a year ago.
They need to be loose and respond to the challenge, not tense up and fall apart.
"You need a sense of urgency about you," safety Brian Dawkins said. "Know the game you are about to be in. At the same time, you can't play the game tight and ... have fun. To have fun, you have to show who you are and your personality and take care of your plays and your business. You cannot let yourself get tight."
Carolina has been one loose team throughout the playoffs. The Panthers (13-5) routed Dallas, then ended St. Louis' 14-game home winning streak in double overtime - the first postseason win by a visitor at the Edward Jones Dome. This group of Panthers has no concerns about the past and, as quarterback Jake Delhomme said, is in the midst of "a pretty good fairy tale."
The Panthers haven't been to the playoffs since 1996, their second season. Not having to deal with recent postseason flops can work in Carolina's favor.
Plus, the Panthers are on a roll.
"What we were able to accomplish last week was a big feat," coach John Fox said. "That gives our team a lot of confidence as we go into a hostile environment."
It's an environment that can get downright hostile for the Eagles, too. Should they stumble the way they did early in last Sunday's overtime victory against Green Bay, the memories two previous title game losses could come flooding in.
If that happens, no matter how loudly Dawkins instructs his teammates, they're bound to get tight. That would make them even more vulnerable to an opponent with little to lose.
Eagles Pro Bowl defensive tackle Corey Simon says that won't happen.
"Everybody's really focused," Simon said. "I think we are definitely enjoying it a little bit more. I think because of everything we have been through all season long - with players lost to injury, and everything that was going on with the 0-2 start - it's just been tremendous adversity that we've had to overcome. So we're really just enjoying this opportunity."
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