The Tampa Bay Buccaneers, the football team that claims as its motto "from worst to first," took a giant step toward that goal today, advancing to the NFC championship game with a tense 24-17 victory over the Philadelphia Eagles.
Jimmy Giles' nine-yard touchdown reception from quarterback Doug Williams provided the winning points with 7:08 to play, but Tampa Bay could not breathe easily today until Ron Jaworski's fourth-down pass intended for Harold Carmichael at the sideline sailed out of bounds and incomplete with 43 seconds remaining.
"I don't think we are an expansion team any more," said Buc back Ricky Bell, who set an NFL playoff record with 38 carries, gained 142 yards and scored touchdowns on runs of four and one yards.
"I think we are a championship team."
"The Bucs will have the chance to prove that Sunday when they play the winner of Dallas-Los Angeles game for the NFC title and a trip to the Super Bowl Jan. 20. A Los Angeles victory would give the Bucs the home-field advantage.
The Bucs, an expansion franchise that started four years ago with an ignominious 26-game losing streak, can puff their chests with the knowledge that no expansion team ever advanced to its conference championship game faster.
Today, Tampa Bay took advantage of an Eagle defense that had few answers in solving the dilemma of stopping Bell or combating the magnificent passing of second-year quarterback Williams, who finished with seven completions in 15 attempts for 132 yards and a touchdown.
The Bucs were a ball-control team today, holding the football for 36 1/2 minutes, to the Eagles' 23 1/2. They also recovered from countless errors -- nine penalties for 105 yards -- a controversial referee's decision on a touchdown pass ruled incomplete and a furious Philadelphia comeback in the final frantic minutes.
"Never say die that's what this team's all about," Williams said. "When I first came here, they said that when the Bucs did something bad three or four years ago, nobody would do anything to overcome it. This year we overcame things. That's what it takes to win."
The Bucs also had plenty of help from a Philadelphia team that came out flat, that dropped a half-dozen passes, that gained only nine yards rushing in a first half that saw them fall behind, 17-0.
The Buc defense, however, was responsible for holding Wilbert Montgomery to only 35 yards rushing. They also took away long tall Harold Carmichael as the Eagles primary receiver most of the day and managed to survive an all-out assault by Jaworski despite dropping three sure interceptions on the Eagles' last possession of the game.
"I hope today got us some respect and no more jokes from Johnny Carson, Howard Cosell and Jimmy the Greek," said Tampa Bay linebacker David Lewis. "I take that back. Jimmy can say what he wants to as long as he keeps us the underdog. We love sneaking up and annihilating people."
The Bucs did precisely that on their first possession of the day, driving 80 yards in 18 plays despite a critical holding penalty and killing almost 9 1/2 minutes on the clock before Bell went around right end from four yards out for the touchdown and a 7-0 lead.
The controversial call on the touchdown pass came early in the second period. Giles broke into the clear on a post pattern over the middle and Williams' pass was on target. Giles had difficulty getting his hands on the ball, but replays indicated he clearly had the ball pinned to his right shoulder before he left the end zone.
Officials ruled, however, that Gilesdid not have control, nullifying the 13-yard score and bringing howls of protest from the orange-clad crowd of 71,402. "I made the catch, I know for a fact I had the football," Giles said. "The guy made a bad call, a total mistake. Thank God it didn't cost us."
The Bucs settled for Neil O'Donoghue's 40-yard field goal instead, then recovered a Montgomery fumble at the Eagle five to set up Bell's second score, a one-yard run off right tackle on fourth down for a 17-0 Tampa Bay lead with 5:24 left in the first half.
The Bucs returned the favor when Williams' slightly high pass bounced off Jerry Eckwood's hands and was intercepted by Eagle linebacker Jerry Robinson. He broke a tackle, veered to the left sideline and gained 38 yards to the Bucs 11 before Larry Mucker dragged him out of bounds.
Two plays later, Jaworski found Charles Smith open in the end zone for a 10-yard touchdown pass. When Tony Franklin connected on a 42-yard field goal on Philadelphia's first possession of the third period to cut the lead to 17-10, hearts began fluttering all through the sun coast.
The Buc defense stiffened considerably, especially late in the third period when Jaworski was sacked twice for losses of 20 yards on successive plays, taking Philadelphia out of field goal range and forcing a punt.
Early in the fourth period, Tampa Bay scored the game-winning points, driving 57 yards (34 on three Bell carries) before Williams rolled to his right from the nine, stopped and fired to Giles for the touchdown.
"It was just a sprint right," Giles said. "I was supposed to drive up 14 yards and go inside. But I gave my man an inside move and he went for it, so I went back to the outside and I was open. Nobody said I juggled that, did they?"
No, mostly Buc backers were slapping hands and singing the team's fight song "Hey, Hey Tampa Bay, the Bucs know how to shine."
They also know how to survive, because Jaworksi and his teammates never gave up. The Eagle quarterback kept his next drive alive with two critical fourth-down completions, then found Carmichael open for a 37-yard touchdown pass to cut the Buc lead to 24-17 with 3:36 left.
The Bucs could not pick up a first down, on their possession, and Philadelphia got the ball back at its 19 with 2:11 left for one last desperate push.
Jaworski kept this drive going with still another clutch fourth-down completion to Charles Smith after Buc cornerback Jeris White had dropped two sure interceptions on second and third downs.
With 1:03 remaining and the ball at Tampa's 45, Jaworski threw incomplete out of bounds on first down. A second-down pass intended for Smith was dropped by Buc safety Cedric Brown, giving Jaworski more life.
On third down, Jaworski's screen to Billy Campfield fell incomplete when the wide receiver dropped the ball. And on fourth down, Jaworski aimed for Carmichael at the right sideline, the season on the line.
But as Carmichael tried to shake loose from White and turned inside, the football already was in the air at the sideline and fell incomplete in front of the Eagle bench. The Bucs tok over with 43 seconds left, ran one play and killed the rest of the clock with a joyous celebration that began 15 seconds before the final gun sounded.
"On that last pass, they had excellent coverage," Jaworski said. "I just tried to put it away from their defense. By the time Harold got away from the guy, I had trown the ball. I probably should have gone to someone else, but that's easy to say now.
"I'll tell you what, though. That's a damned fine football team we just played. I don't care what people said about them. I'm smart enough to realize they had the NFL's best defense. Anybody who thinks those guys can't play doesn't know football." joyously pounded and pummeled one another after their stunning 17-14 up