Before they learned that they would host the Washington Redskins in an NFC semifinal game on Saturday, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers took the diplomatic approach when asked which team they would have preferred to play.
"There's no preference," defensive tackle Warren Sapp said. "We know we'll have a tough game no matter who we play."
But when the Buccaneers return to practice Monday following three days off, they will begin preparing for a team that presents perhaps the most desirable matchup of any of the three teams--Washington, Dallas or Minnesota--they could have faced.
The Buccaneers (11-5) won their first NFC Central title in 18 years despite averaging just 16.9 points per game. With a conservative, run-oriented offense led by a quarterback, Shaun King, who was not supposed to take a snap in his rookie season, the Bucs have struggled to put points on the board.
But they will face a Washington defense that statistically ranked among the NFL's worst. And even though the Redskins' offense averaged 384.4 yards per game, second in the NFL, the Buccaneers' defense, one of the league's best, has been dominant.
Coach Tony Dungy, the former Minnesota Vikings defensive coordinator and one-time Pittsburgh Steelers defensive back, has built his team around a swarming defense. Four Buccaneers defenders will head to the Pro Bowl in February: Sapp, linebackers Derrick Brooks and Hardy Nickerson, and safety John Lynch.
This season, the Buccaneers endured a 3-4 start, injuries to quarterbacks Trent Dilfer and Eric Zeier and an offense that offered few threats beyond running backs Mike Alstott and Warrick Dunn. So much did the Buccaneers rely on the defense that twice they won without scoring an offensive touchdown.
"It has been kind of weird the way things have gone for us at times," Lynch said. "There have been certain times this year when you sort of got the feeling that maybe all this was somehow destined to happen.
"But we've had to work for everything we've gotten. It's not like we've blown teams out and won every game. By no means has it been easy."
Saturday's game will be the first playoff contest at two-year-old Raymond James Stadium.
The Buccaneers will be making the fifth playoff appearance in franchise history and first since 1997, when they began the year 5-0 in Dungy's second season, eventually losing to Green Bay in the NFC semifinals.
"We weren't expected to do too much in '97, and I think we caught people a little bit off-guard," Dungy said. "We got off to a fast start, and it was just kind of a matter of holding on. This year we had high expectations of ourselves, and we didn't get off to that fast start."