Buccaneers 27, Eagles 10
-- Veterans Stadium has a wrecking ball or dynamite in its future, but it will have to go a long way to match the demolition job inflicted by the Tampa Bay Buccaneers on the Philadelphia Eagles today in an NFC championship game that left the hometown fans booing their team one last melancholy time in these seedy surroundings.
This was the blessed last pro football game at the Vet, but hardly anyone around these partisan parts expected it to be the Eagles' final game of the year. Instead, with a defense that lived up to its reputation as the league's best and an efficient offense that left the Eagles totally befuddled, the Bucs extended their season with a 27-10 victory over their self-destructing foes.
Tampa Bay, a team that started its expansion existence 0-26 in part with a quarterback named Steve Spurrier, will play in the franchise's first Super Bowl next Sunday against the Oakland Raiders in San Diego. The victory was particularly gratifying to Coach Jon Gruden, the Oakland Raiders coach a year ago, who said, "this is probably the greatest day of my life. . . . Nobody really expected us to win."
"There's nobody in the world who gave us a chance," said Bucs cornerback Ronde Barber, who clinched this victory with a 92-yard interception return of a Donovan McNabb pass for a touchdown with 3 minutes 12 seconds left. "It just makes it that much sweeter. We knew going in we were the better football team."
It certainly did not start off that way, not with Eagles return man Brian Mitchell, the former Redskin, returning the opening kickoff 72 yards to the Tampa Bay 26-yard line. Not with running back Duce Staley breaking two tackles on a 20-yard touchdown on the second play from scrimmage for a 7-0 lead 52 seconds into the game. The decibel level was off the charts, but the Bucs never panicked, and never lost their poise.
The Eagles did, and McNabb said later: "It all starts with the quarterback. I'm very critical of my play and I know that I could have made a lot more plays out there, executed a little bit better and put us in a greater position to score. . . . We weren't overconfident. We knew what kind of team they had. . . . I played poorly today."
Another former Redskin, Tampa Bay quarterback Brad Johnson, did not. With Gruden's insistence, he decided to wear a glove on his passing hand for the first time in his career because of the wind-chill index in the mid-teens. The Bucs scored a field goal on their first possession. They weathered an Eagles interception on the second drive and were launched into the lead on their third with arguably the most significant play of the game.
It involved Bucs wide receiver Joe Jurevicius on third and two at Tampa Bay's 24. After Gruden called a timeout to come up with a viable play to pick up a first down, Jurevicius made a move across the middle, caught a short pass from Johnson a step ahead of linebacker Barry Gardner and picked up several critical blocks to get to the sideline. He was knocked out of bounds by Brian Dawkins at the Eagles 5 after a 71-yard gain.
Two plays later, Mike Alstott blasted around left end and into the end zone behind a block thrown by Warren Sapp -- yes, defensive tackle Warren Sapp, lined up at tight end in a short-yardage formation -- for a one-yard touchdown that earned the Bucs a 10-7 lead. They never trailed again.
That was Jurevicius's only catch all day, but he got up off the ground with his fist pumping and his teammates said that was the play that turned the tide in their favor.
"Brad threw it on the money and [tight end] Ken Dilger got a great block downfield, which enabled me to take off," said Jurevicius, who did not practice all week because of the premature birth Tuesday and subsequent health problems of his first child, Michael. "When my kid gets healthy and looks back on this, I want him to be proud of this. My son is a fighter. . . . That catch was for him."
The Bucs made plenty of other pitches and catches against an Eagles secondary that boasted three Pro Bowl starters and a blitz package that was supposed to wreak havoc against Johnson, a classic pocket passer sacked six times when the teams met in October. Today, Johnson used a three-stop dropback and lots of play action, completing 20 of 33 passes for 259 yards.
For whatever reason, the Eagles rarely blitzed in the first half. And when Bucs wide receiver Keyshawn Johnson -- before another head-clearing Gruden timeout on third and nine at the Eagles 9 with 2:31 left in the first half -- ran a quick slant for a touchdown and a 17-10 lead, the Bucs seemed in total control.
The defense was particularly sharp. Late in the first half, McNabb's high school teammate, Bucs defensive end Simeon Rice, came around the back side and knocked the ball out of McNabb's hands at the Tampa Bay 24. Rice recovered the fumble, one of three costly Eagles turnovers.
McNabb, who looked so sharp last week in eliminating Atlanta after missing seven weeks with a broken right ankle, was no match for a relentless pass rush that sacked him twice and held him to 17 rushing yards on three carries. The Bucs became the big blitzers, especially in the second half, and also seemed to have blanket coverage on his receivers, the main reason Philadelphia picked up only five of its 16 third-down conversion attempts.
The Bucs defense was at its very best in the third quarter. The Eagles had four possessions. On their first, Barber swatted a ball out of McNabb's hand for a fumble recovered by tackle Ellis Wyms near midfield. The other three ended in punts, two of them after just three plays.
The denouement came on Barber's fourth-quarter interception on a pass intended for Eagles wide receiver Antonio Freeman.
McNabb "threw it right into the teeth of the defense," Barber said. "It was a play I have to make. I'm kicking myself for the next five weeks if I don't make that interception. The touchdown was a bonus."