BUCS 27, EAGLES 10
First the Tampa Bay Buccaneers had to believe that they could win
the NFC championship by beating the Philadelphia Eagles in the
freezing cold at a boisterous Veterans Stadium. Then they had to
do it. Coach Jon Gruden took care of the first part last Saturday
night. Receiver Joe Jurevicius, despite a heavy heart, handled
the second part on Sunday.
At a team meeting the 39-year-old Gruden, who was hired away
from the Oakland Raiders last year to win games like this one,
stood in front of his squad and gave what safety John Lynch
later called the greatest pre-game speech he's ever heard. "A
couple years ago Randy Johnson pitches in the seventh game of
the World Series on one day's rest," Gruden said. "One day! He
doesn't hold the ball any different. He doesn't rush his
delivery. He goes out and pitches like he always pitches--great.
Arizona wins the World Series. Let's talk golf. I've followed
Tiger Woods on the course a few times. All kinds of distractions. Beautiful girls try to get his attention on every hole.
Photographers snapping his picture. Guys yelling crap at him.
But he draws that club back and pounds the ball straight, and he
shoots 66 and punches his fist in the air. He goes out and plays
like he always plays--great. You guys in this room have that
kind of greatness in you! And that is exactly what you're going
to show tomorrow!"
Five days before the game Jurevicius's first child, Michael, had
been born a month premature, and the receiver hadn't practiced
all week because of his son's uncertain health. But neither the
mental strain nor the lack of preparation kept Jurevicius, who
rejoined his teammates in Philadelphia last Saturday, from making
the play of the game. With the Eagles leading 7-3 late in the
first quarter and the Bucs facing third-and-two at their 24,
quarterback Brad Johnson stepped into the huddle and called
Triple Right 83 Double Smash X Option. Three wide receivers
(Jurevicius, Keyshawn Johnson and Keenan McCardell) split right,
and tight end Ken Dilger split left. Jurevicius had the most
advantageous matchup because a slow linebacker, Barry Gardner,
was assigned to him in man coverage. Jurevicius, the X in the
play call, had three options in running his route: After going
five yards downfield he could stop dead and look back at the
quarterback, or turn upfield, or make Gardner chase him across
the middle. Jurevicius chose the last of those and caught the
pass in stride, continued across the field and then raced along
the left sideline with surprising speed until he was dragged
down at the five-yard line. "Our sideline was dead until Joe
made that play," Lynch said afterward.
Two plays later fullback Mike Alstott rammed into the end zone
from the one, and Tampa Bay never trailed again. The Bucs did
the unthinkable--silenced the crowd of 66,713--and, in winning
27-10, rendered unnecessary the 40 riot-ready motorcycle cops
and a dozen mounted police who ringed the field late in the
game. The only joy at the Vet was on the Tampa Bay sideline,
where the victors celebrated the 27 year-old franchise's first
trip to the Super Bowl. As the clock wound down, Keyshawn
Johnson hugged defensive end Simeon Rice and yelled, "I don't
know if I should scream, cry or run around naked!"
Tampa Bay's strategy had certainly undressed the Eagles. The Bucs
kept pressure on the Philadelphia quarterback, making Donovan
McNabb look like a Syracuse sophomore again. They neutralized the
Eagles' league-leading pass rush (56 sacks in 2002), allowing no
sacks. And they beat Philly through the air, the way few teams
had dared to try, producing 259 yards and a touchdown. Go figure:
Brad Johnson is a statue in the pocket, and the Eagles had
blitzed the elusive Michael Vick 24 times in their 20--6
divisional playoff win over the Atlanta Falcons the previous
week, yet Philadelphia blitzed just eight times on Sunday. Why?
Because Johnson threw on three-step drops, used a lot of max
protection, and the Bucs changed their blocking schemes at the
line depending on the front Philly showed. Going into the game
Tampa Bay was sure it had Philadelphia's blitz decoded. As
Johnson said last Thursday, "They won't be able to do that to
Johnson was right. In fact, on both sides of the ball, this
wasn't like the Bucs-Eagles games of recent vintage; Philadelphia
had won the teams' last four meetings, including the ones that
knocked Tampa Bay out of the playoffs in 2000 and 2001. For one
thing, McNabb, who had returned to the lineup against Atlanta
after missing six games with a broken right ankle, looked
tentative, throwing passes into the ground and over receivers'
heads. "I don't care what anyone says," Bucs defensive tackle
Warren Sapp said. "Donovan McNabb can't miss seven weeks and come
back and be the same. He wasn't the same." For another, Tampa Bay
was much more aggressive than usual on offense. Gruden scripts
the Bucs' first 15 plays, and the scenario he gave them on
Saturday night was the most pass-heavy (11 throws, four runs) of
any game this season. "I loved how we kept attacking," Johnson
That is the reason the Buccaneers gave the Raiders $8 million
plus two first-and two second-round draft picks for Gruden last
February. The coach was expected to deliver, and that's what he's
done. "Aw, what coach is worth that?" he said last Saturday. "I
realize I'll never live up to those standards. Who can? All I
know is I'm going to give it my best shot every day."
Now Gruden and the Bucs get to play the team that he has avoided
mentioning in most interviews all season. When asked last week
about the prospect of playing his former team in the biggest game
of his career this Sunday, Gruden finally smiled and shot back,
"I can say the word: Raiders!" Now the question is, Can he beat
COLOR PHOTO: AL TIELEMANS DOWN BY CONTACT The Bucs' Sapp (99) and Alshermond Singleton (51)kept Duce Staley and the Eagles in check.
COLOR PHOTO: BILL FRAKES MO JOE Jurevicius missed practice all week to be with his ailing son, then turned the game with a 71-yard reception.