The Tampa Bay Buccaneers began preparations today for Sunday's NFC championship game, convinced that their victory over the Washington Redskins last Saturday will serve as a confidence-builder as they face the top-ranked offense of the St. Louis Rams.
The host Rams scored a league-high 526 points and averaged more than 400 yards of offense per game. They have been installed as two-touchdown favorites to get to the Super Bowl for the first time since 1980, when the Los Angeles Rams defeated the Buccaneers in the NFC championship here.
But Coach Tony Dungy was quick to stress to the Buccaneers today that the Atlanta Falcons were heavy underdogs in last year's NFC title game, but defeated the Minnesota Vikings on the road.
"People had pretty much conceded Minnesota the title," Dungy said. "They were undefeated at home and had only lost one game, and looked like they couldn't be stopped. But we'll go up there [to St. Louis] with a lot of confidence."
The Buccaneers' offense was ranked 28th in the NFL during the regular season and produced the fewest points (270) of any playoff team. But Tampa Bay overcame a 13-0 third-quarter deficit to defeat the Redskins, 14-13. Following a pattern established during the regular season, the defense did not allow an offensive touchdown and forced two turnovers in the second half that set up touchdowns.
Before Saturday, Tampa Bay had not recovered from a second-half deficit of more than four points all season. But it held Washington's high-powered offense to 26 yards in the second half and 157 yards total.
Unlike the Redskins, whose defense struggled at times, St. Louis is a more balanced team. The Rams' defense was first in the league against the run and includes the league sack leader, Kevin Carter.
"We feel like we're one of the premier defenses in the league, and we always look forward to the challenge of playing a high-powered offense," Buccaneers defensive end Steve White said. "It forces us to bring our game up another level."
The Buccaneers will employ their typical strategy against the Rams, looking to keep the game low-scoring and close until the fourth quarter. Dungy said he hopes the game resembles the 1980 conference championship game, if only in terms of pace, when the Rams kicked three field goals to win, 9-0.
"We're going to have to slow them down and play our best defensive game of the year," Dungy said. "I'm sure they're going to come out and try to speed things up. It will be a game of contrasting styles."