PHILADELPHIA, Jan. 19 (UPI) -- The Tampa Bay Buccaneers, who lost the first 26 games they ever played, are finally going to the Super Bowl.
Cornerback Ronde Barber finished off a spectacular effort from the NFL's No. 1 defense Sunday by returning an interception 92 yards for a touchdown with 3:12 remaining, sending the Buccaneers to pro football's biggest game for the first time with a 27-10 victory over the Philadelphia Eagles.
A 71-yard pass from Brad Johnson to Joe Jurevicius gave Tampa Bay the momentum late in the first period of the NFC championship game and led to a go-ahead touchdown. The Buccaneers' defense took over from there, producing three turnovers and thoroughly dominating a Philadelphia team that was a touchdown favorite.
The day was set up perfectly for the Eagles, who played for the final time in Veterans Stadium on a frigid afternoon warmed up by a typically boistrous Philadelphia crowd. But after the Eagles scored a mere 52 seconds into the contest, the Buccanners' offense seized control and their defense smothered Philadelphia quarterback Donovan McNabb.
Philadelphia lost one step short of the Super Bowl for the second straight year, falling to St. Louis on the road in the NFC title contest last season, 29-24. San Francisco was the last team to lose two straight conference championship games, doing so both times to Dallas at the end of the 1992 and 1993 seasons.
The Buccaneers had been one of nine existing franchises that had not won a Super Bowl trip and they did so in the first year on the job for Coach Jon Gruden. Philadelphia had ended Tampa Bay's season each of the last two years in the wild card round -- both of those games having been played at The Vet.
Johnson led the Buccaneers on three scoring drives in the first half to give the Buccaneers a 17-10 lead at intermission and Martin Gramatica boosted that advantage to 10 points late in the third period with a 27-yard field goal.
With the clock beginning to run out, Philadelphia still had hopes for a comeback when McNabb drove his team from the Eagles' 18 to the Tampa Bay 11.
On first down, McNabb attempted to hit flanker Todd Pinkston on the left side. Barber faked a blitz on the play, but then dashed back into coverage. Thinking a blitz was coming and believing Barber had taken himself out of the play, McNabb fired the ball toward Pinkston.
But Barber had sprinted back into the secondary and found himself directly in the path of McNabb's throw. The Tampa Bay cornerback had nothing but artificial turf between him and the goal line.
"We were unbelievabely prepared today," Barber said. "We had a great game plan and went out and executed it.
"I don't think Donovan saw me when he threw the pass. It was a huge play for us."
Since it took Philadelphia less than a minute to score a touchdown, it appeared early that it would be a long, in addition to cold, day for the Buccaneers. The temperature at kickoff was 26 degrees and the chill factor was 15.
But for the rest of the first half, despite beginning possessions at their own 40, the Tampa Bay 46, the Buccaneers' 38 and their own 40 again, the Eagles could manage just three points.
Tampa Bay, meanwhile, put together drives of 37 yards for a field goal, 96 yards for a touchdown and 80 yards for a touchdown, outgaining the Eagles in the first half -- 224 yards to 125.
The Buccaneers led the league by allowing 252.8 yards per game and while Philadelphia gained 312 yards Sunday, 144 of them came in the final six minutes as the Eagles desperately tried to rally.
This is the 27th season of Tampa Bay football and the franchise holds the record for most consecutive losses -- the 26 straight setbacks suffered at the beginning of their history. That is nine more than any other team.
But now that the Buccaneers have earned their first trip to the Super Bowl, only Seattle, New Orleans, Carolina, Detroit, Arizona, Jacksonville and the new franchises in Houston and Cleveland have yet to compete for the Vince Lomardi Trophy.
Having been shocked by Brian Mitchell's 70-yard kickoff return to start the game and Philadelphia's instant touchdown scored on a 20-yard run by Duce Staley, the Buccaneers did not panic. They quickly drove into field goal range, thanks chiefly to a pair of runs by Michael Pittman totaling 16 yards and a 13-yard throw from Johnson to Ken Dilger.
Gramatica, kicking downwind, converted the 48-yard attempt that provided the Buccaneers some confidence that they could move the ball and score.
"We had a long scoring drive to answer there," Gruden said. "We made some big plays and when we get it going a little bit, this defense starts feeling it. I don't care who is on the other side."
That confidence only grew late in the first period when the Buccaneers took over at their own four-yard line following a punt.
Mike Alstott was given the ball twice in a row and he brought the ball off the Tampa Bay goal line with a pair of six-yard runs. Moments later, the Buccaneers faced third and two from their own 24 when Johnson came up with a huge play.
Johnson hit Jurevicius a mere four yards past the line of scrimmage, but the Tampa Bay receiver quickly ran away from linebacker Barry Gardner, got a block downfield from Dilger and turned it into a 71 gain.
Two plays later, Alstott bulled in from the one to put the Buccaneers in front.
Philadelphia tied the game at 10-10 on a 30-yard field goal by David Akers with 8:04 left in the first half, but the Buccaneers promptly drove 80 yards. Keyshawn Johnson caught passes of 20 and eight yards on the march and then caught a nine-yarder on a slant pattern on third and goal for the touchdown that came with 2:28 remaining in the half.
Jurevicius, whose long catch was his only reception of the day, stepped into the spotlight after a difficult week in which his newborn son was fighting for his life. The Tampa Bay receiver did not practice all week and did not even take part in Saturday's walkthrough at the stadium.
"It has been a roller coaster week of emotions for me," Jurevicius said. "My family needed me to do this. We are so excited now. My son might be up walking right now.
"I want to thank the Buccaneer organization for giving me a chance to do this. This is a great win for us. People say we can't do it and we turn around and do it."
Johnson completed 20 of 33 passes for 259 yards while McNabb, who returned last week for the divisional-round victory over Atlanta after missing two months with a broken leg, was 26 of 49 for 243 yards. In addition to throwing the late interception, McNabb fumbled twice when his arm was hit as he was trying to throw.
One of those turnovers came with Philadelphia on the Tampa Bay 24 late in the first half and the other occurred at midfield on the Eagles' opening possession of the third period.
"We have to keep bearing down and get ourselves past this," said Philadelphia Coach Andy Reid. "But my congratulations go out to the guys who got us this far. You have to be optimistic in this mess.
"It is very disappointing to come this far, after 20 or so weeks of football, and put yourself in position to strike for the Super Bowl and you lose. They put their hearts and souls into it and they should be disappointed."