Tents, sleeping bags, portable TV sets and heating devices were in order last night as thousands of Tampa Bay fans braved the chilly weather to grab the first tickets today for the Buccaneers' National Conference championship game against Los Angeles in Tampa Stadium Sunday.
All season, the Buccaneers have had trouble convincing anyone outside the Tampa area that they had any business being mentioned in the same breath with the likes of Dallas, Los Angeles and Philadelphia among National Football Conference teams.
"I guess the players like being an underdog," said Coach John McKay.
"I like being the underdog but the underdog with the best team. We've got something rolling here now and it's pretty good. I guess no one wants to explain it by saying we've got some good players."
The players were good enough to win the division crown this year with a 10-6 mark. Included in those victories was a 21-6 win over the Rams.
"We can't relax against them for two reasons," said defensive tackle Dewey Selmon. "One, we played them before. And two, we beat them. Los Angeles is an experienced team. They have a lot more to gain -- not only a shot at the Super Bowl but revenge against us."
The Rams, who have had more ink with their front office turmoil than with their on-the-field performance, overcame a lot of injuries to earn a fifth shot in the last seven years at the NFC title.
The Rams' regular season record of 9-7 is the worst among the four final teams. It was their poorest mark since '72.
Reggie Doss, a seldom-used defensive end, will probably replace All-Pro Jack Youngblood who broke his left fibula (shin bone) in the Dallas game. He is listed as doubtful. A total of 18 Ram players have missed one game or more because of injury and six have been sidelined for the season. Four of the Ram heroies in the Dallas victory -- Wendell Taylor, Vince Ferragamo, Ron Smith and Billy Waddy -- were either injured or on reserve status when they lost to Bucs in the first meeting.
Pittsburgh wide receiver Lynn Swann, who pulled up with a tight hamstring muscle in the Steelers 34-14 win over Miami, plans to be on the field for the clash with Houston in the AFC final at Three Rivers Stadium Sunday.
"My hamstring may tell me something else but I'll try not to listen," said Swann. "If you can't get up now you don't have much heart in the first place. It would be a crime to stop now after going so far. You want it more than ever."
The three-time Super Bowl champion Steelers were elated over the 20-17 Oiler win over San Diego, not because Pittsburgh had manhandled Houston, 38-7, back in September or because the Earl (Campbell) of Houston, Dan Pastorini and Ken Burrough are ailing, but because they did not want a five-hour plane ride to San Diego.
"It's not that I'm anxious to play the Oilers again," said Pittsburgh quarterback Terry Bradshaw, "but I didn't want to make that flight to the West Coast."
Houston Coach Bum Phillips, who will announce today if his three battered stars will be available for Sunday, said he hopes the "dismal experience we had in Pittsburgh doesn't happen again."
"We don't want to go through that again," said Phillips, referring to the Steelers easy 34-5 win over Houston in last year's AFC final.
The Oilers have been one of the best come-from-behind teams in the NFL.
"Our history has been fight like hell as long as you are out there regardless of what the score is," said Phillips. "We have come from behind and we have been in the playoffs before. Our guys didn't get rattled and our coaches didn't get rattled, in spite of my going down the sideline raising hell now and then."
Quote of the day: When asked for a prediction about the outcome of the Steeler-Oiler game, Pastorini said, "I'm not in the prediction business. I am in the competition business."