The degree of difficulty for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' victories keeps getting larger. This time, their highly regarded defense not only had to shut down the Washington Redskins' explosive offense, it also had to provide two second-half turnovers to set up a 14-13, comeback victory that put the team into the NFC championship game for the first time since 1979.
The Buccaneers won in typically ugly fashion by overcoming a 13-0 third-quarter deficit and by not surrendering an offensive touchdown for the sixth time this season. They survived despite another struggle by their 25th-ranked offense, which provided only 186 yards, including a combined 42 yards rushing from running backs Mike Alstott and Warrick Dunn.
But Tampa Bay held the Redskins to 157 yards, well below their average of 372.8 yards per game. Washington rushed for 46 yards, with Stephen Davis, the NFC's leading rusher this season, able to provide only 37 yards on 17 carries.
"It was typical Buccaneer football," said defensive tackle Warren Sapp, who recovered Brad Johnson's fumble in Washington territory early in the fourth quarter after the quarterback was sacked by Steve White. "All year long we've known that if we can keep it close going into the fourth quarter, we have a very good chance to win."
The Buccaneers overcame halftime deficits to win three times in December after rookie quarterback Shaun King took over for injured starter Trent Dilfer. But until today, they never had overcome a second-half deficit of more than four points. In addition, all five of their losses occurred when the opposition scored first.
"We have so much confidence in our defense having the ability not only to stop the opponent, but also to get us the ball in good position," said center Tony Mayberry. "Even down 13-0, you know they're going to make the big plays."
"We've done it all year," said defensive tackle Brad Culpepper. "We've shut down a lot of good offenses and we knew we could battle back."
Coach Tony Dungy stressed all week that his team could not afford to fall behind since the Buccaneers had not come back from more than a 10-point deficit all season. The Buccaneers prefer to keep the score close until the fourth quarter, then control the clock behind Alstott, the bruising fullback.
But with their offense sputtering and the Redskins holding a 13-0 lead midway through the third quarter, the Buccaneers appeared likely to become just the second of 18 NFC teams to lose a playoff game following a bye week since the NFL went to the six-teams-per-conference playoff format.
But safety John Lynch, one of four Buccaneers defenders headed to the Pro Bowl, intercepted a pass by Johnson with just under six minutes remaining in the third quarter, setting up a 73-yard touchdown drive. White's sack and Sapp's subsequent fumble recovery early in the fourth gave the Buccaneers the ball at the Redskins 32-yard line, setting up the second touchdown.
Tampa Bay relied heavily this season on the defense's ability to force turnovers. It forced seven during the team's 3-4 start, then 25 during the last nine games, resulting in 81 points.
"We find ways to win," said cornerback Ronde Barber. "We're not going to score a lot of points, but we'll force mistakes and put our offense in a position to capitalize."
Said Sapp: "There's no quit in this ballclub. Our running game was struggling today, but they got it done when they had to. We've thrived on making every game a 60-minute war and that's what we were able to do today."
The Buccaneers became the first team to win a playoff game while playing a rookie quarterback since Pat Haden led the Los Angeles Rams over the Dallas Cowboys in 1976. And for the 11th time in Tampa Bay's 17 games, neither team scored more than 21 points.
"We won ugly, but so what?" said White. "We shouldn't have to defend the way we play because it works. People can say our offense is from the Stone Age or whatever. But the fact is there are a lot of teams playing at home while our style of play has gotten us one win away from the Super Bowl."