They had been dubbed the Team of Destiny, but the magic ran out for the Green Bay Packers when they lost in overtime to the Philadelphia Eagles on Sunday night. The pre-game hype had focused on Brett Favre, Green Bay's talismanic quarterback, but the real hero of a pulsating game was his counterpart, Donovan McNabb, whose leadership and resilience enabled the Eagles to pull off an unlikely victory.
Before Christmas, Favre's father had died suddenly: less than 24 hours later, he played a near-perfect game against the Oakland Raiders. The following week, his Packers qualified for the playoffs only because the Arizona Cardinals defeated the Minnesota Vikings on the last play of the game, a result which left many, including Favre, wondering if supernatural forces were at work.
Those forces helped the Packers edge Seattle in overtime last week, and the sporting gods again seemed to be smiling on Green Bay once more as they took a 14-0 lead in frigid Philadelphia, Favre throwing a pair of touchdowns to Robert Ferguson.
McNabb, however, rallied his side and gained 107 rushing yards, the most by a quarterback in playoff history, but his most vital contribution came in the dying moments. Facing a fourth down and 26, and with their season on the line, McNabb kept his team alive with a completion to Freddie Mitchell. David Akers then converted a 37-yard field goal with five seconds remaining to take the game to overtime.
For Favre, that was the end of the magic. Inexplicably, he hoisted a hopeful ball into the air, with none of his receivers in the vicinity. The pass was intercepted by Philadelphia's Brian Dawkins and this time there was no way back for Green Bay. An Akers field goal from 31-yards secured their 20-17 triumph, and their third NFC championship game appearance in succession.
Uncharacteristically, Favre declined to be interviewed afterwards, but some speculate that he might now contemplate retirement. The Eagles will host the Carolina Panthers next Sunday, with the winner qualifying for the Super Bowl.
Despite the heroism of McNabb, the most effective quarterback on display this weekend was Peyton Manning of the Indianapolis Colts. A week after his five-touchdown performance overwhelmed Denver, Manning was close to perfection again, this time in Kansas City, where his three touchdowns and assured passing helped his side to a 38-31 triumph.
The Colts scored on every possession, with Manning growing in stature as the game progressed. A 92-yard kickoff return from the sparkling Dante Hall gave the Chiefs hope, but thanks to Manning's brilliance, this was a game they were always chasing.
"He is the master," Kansas City's Eric Hicks said. "I never would have thought that a quarterback would play two games in a row like that." Before this season, Manning had lost all three of his previous post-season contests, leading to speculation that he was not a player for the big occasion.
That reputation has been emphatically dispelled this year: he has thrown for 681 yards, eight touchdowns and no interceptions in two playoff wins this year, and on this form will give the Colts a genuine chance when they travel to New England next week in search of the franchise's first Super Bowl appearance in 33 years. The Patriots booked their place with a dour 17-14 win over Tennessee on Saturday, and next week's meeting with the Colts represents the toughest defence in the game against the most efficient offence. The winner from that encounter will take some stopping.
NFL DIVISIONAL PLAY-OFFS: Indianapolis 38 Kansas City 31; Philadelphia 20 Green Bay 17 (ot).