-- In the gloom of the losers' dressing room at the NFC title game in St. Louis a year ago, Philadelphia Eagles Coach Andy Reid did not mince words after his team fell 29-24 to the Rams.
"About all Andy said after that game was 'Home-field advantage,' " Eagles tackle John Welbourn said. "It's what we worked for all season, and we've got it."
Of all the ways one could break down the matchups for Sunday's NFC championship game between the Eagles and the visiting Tampa Bay Buccaneers, one overwhelming distinction stands out. The Eagles (13-4) will be playing their final game at 32-year-old Veterans Stadium, in front of their boisterous fans, many of whom have been known to use cups of beer and AA batteries for purposes other than what they were originally intended.
The winner will move on to the Super Bowl a week from today in San Diego against the AFC champion, either the Oakland Raiders or the team they will host Sunday at their own snake pit Black Hole of a stadium, the Tennessee Titans.
The Vet can be a very intimidating place, a Green Hole if ever there were one, even if it will be torn down after the Philadelphia Phillies complete their 2003 season there. And with temperatures expected in the mid-twenties and the possibility of snow showers, the elements do not bode well for a Tampa Bay team that has lost its past four games to the Eagles in the crumbling, rat-infested edifice at the corner of Pattison and Broad.
The Bucs (13-4) also are 1-21 in games played when the temperature is 40 or lower and have been thumped out of the playoffs each of the past two seasons by Philadelphia. Tampa Bay's only win in the cold came three weeks ago against the playing-out-the-string Chicago Bears in the last game of the regular season. Oh yes, they're also 0-6 on the road in the postseason.
Publicly, the Eagles dismiss the idea that they've got the Bucs' number, especially in their own building. But privately, there is an air of confidence in their locker room knowing they've already beaten Tampa Bay convincingly, 20-10 on Oct. 20, and that the Bucs surely have all manner of mental baggage packed in their suitcases for this latest trip north.
The Eagles aren't exactly waxing nostalgic for the Vet, but they also know it may be their biggest ally on Sunday, despite having to endure so many seasons playing in what even team owner Jeff Lurie has described as "a dump."
Eagles quarterback Donovan McNabb said he mostly remembers "dead things" at the Vet. "I once saw this homely looking bug; it was splattered all over the field. It was awesome," he said. "You'll have your birds, and I think the rats have been pretty much killed by the cats. I don't know about the cats being dead, unless the rats just ate up the cats and got bigger."
Said Welbourn, "It smells like beer, stale peanuts and garbage, a funny smell. But it's the best home-field advantage I've ever seen. Terrible turf, the elements, the crowd. . . . It's very edgy. It fits perfectly with our fans. And you know they're ready to rock."
The Bucs have far more to worry about than the rodents, the cups of beer that will be thrown at them, along with the batteries, some imbedded in snowballs if the white stuff is available.
Specifically, the Bucs have not scored an offensive touchdown in the teams' last three meetings. Their only touchdown in this season's Philadelphia victory came on a fumble recovery by outside linebacker Derrick Brooks. In the past two playoff losses to the Eagles, the Bucs have been outscored 52-12.
Still, the Eagles are preaching caution, insisting history does not matter, especially in a game of this magnitude. The oddsmakers apparently agree, because Philadelphia is only a four-point favorite to go to its first Super Bowl since the 1980 season, when Dick Vermeil was the head coach.
"I'm looking forward to it," said Tampa Bay quarterback Brad Johnson, a former Redskin. "There's no better environment, no greater challenge than what we're getting ready to face. They've dominated us the last three times we've played, so if you're going to win it, you might as well win it up there."
Johnson has been his team's most valuable offensive player this season, especially over the second half of the season. In his past seven games, he has thrown 18 touchdown passes with two interceptions, and the Bucs have averaged 27.2 points over that same 6-1 span.
Johnson is a stand-up pocket quarterback who relies on his blockers to keep him upright. The Bucs obviously will try to run the ball early to keep the Eagles' relentless pass rushers honest. But Philadelphia defensive coordinator Jim Johnson has no plan to change his team's pattern of play, which also includes blitzes from any place on the field.
The Eagles can take that high risk approach because of their secondary. Both corners, Bobby Taylor and Troy Vincent, are going to the Pro Bowl.
So is safety Brian Dawkins. Because the corners are so proficient in man-to-man coverage, the Eagles frequently send safeties and linebackers -- and the occasional corner, too -- dashing toward an opposing quarterback.
"We feel like we match up well against them," Taylor said. "We have big corners who can bump and run against them. We're better when we get up in guys faces and try to disrupt their timing. We know a lot of things they do are on timing, and we can get them off that timing, we've done our job."
The Bucs' defense also is loaded with all-pro performers, leading many to believe this likely will be a close, low-scoring contest. But the Eagles' huge offensive line has dominated the Bucs in recent years, especially in the running game. Defensive tackle Warren Sapp will lead the Tampa Bay charge and has been quite vocal, as usual, this week in his disdain for the Vet and its fans, saying, "My mother can't even come."
Eagles return man Brian Mitchell, expected to be another major factor in this game, trash-talked right back, calling him Warren "Sack-less," because Sapp has had only a half-sack in the last four games against the Eagles and has been a non-factor. Sapp was at his petulant worst during a media session in the Bucs' locker room on Wednesday, demanding a reporter be thrown out of the room for having the impertinence to ask him about being the cornerstone of the defense.
Asked why Philadelphia's defensive line had such success against him, he said, "Next question." As to how to stop the Eagles and McNabb, he said, "We've got to play a nice, solid football game to where we don't allow him to play to his strength, which is getting out of the pocket and being on the run or sitting in the pocket comfortably and finding his open receivers. . . . We're going at him with reckless abandon."