Tampa Bay tries for first Super Bowl trip

Jan. 18, 2003 at 11:59 AM
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PHILADELPHIA, Jan. 18 (UPI) -- The Philadelphia Eagles host the Tampa Bay Buccaneers Sunday with the NFC championship on the line and everything -- history, location and weather -- will be working against the visiting team.

Tampa Bay has never won a playoff game on the road, the Buccaneers are a notoriously poor cold-weather team and their last two seasons have ended in the stadium where Sunday's contest will be played.

It will be the final professional football game at Veterans Stadium, generally regarded by players around the league as the worst place to play in the NFL.

The Buccaneers had their Super Bowl hopes dashed by the Eagles last year and the year before that with embarrassing losses in the wild card round by a combined score of 52-9. Tampa Bay also lost here earlier this season.

Tampa Bay failed to register a touchdown in both playoff games, suffering a 21-3 defeat in 2000 and a 31-9 loss here last January. The second of those setbacks led to the firing of Coach Tony Dungy, who was replaced by Jon Gruden.

"We're not going to sit here and try to justify what happened two or three years ago, or what happened earlier this year," Gruden said. "It's irrelevant now. We respect Philadelphia for what it has done this year, not in the past. What happened before has no bearing.

"We're going to get on the plane and we're going to play them anywhere, play them anyplace. Whether it be in 'The Vet' or on the Walt Whitman Bridge, we're going to be there."

Tampa Bay cornerback Ronde Barber knows the Bucs are looking for redemption.

"We have some demons up there that would be nice to erase," Barber said. "It's about us, not about them. And, we'll go out and play our best game."

Eagles Pro Bowl defensive end Hugh Douglas said he is not banking on what happened the last two seasons.

"That doesn't make a difference," Douglas said. "This is the NFL. That was last year. This is a whole new year. The stakes are a lot higher and we've got to come to play. We still have to play the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and we know what kind of football team."

Light snow is forecast for the morning Sunday with the temperature expected to be just below freezing for the 4 p.m. EST kickoff.

The Eagles are in the NFC title game for the second straight season. Last year, Philadelphia suffered a 29-24 loss at St. Louis in the championship game.

Philadelphia made home-field advantage a priority this season and was able to accomplish that even with star quarterback Donovan McNabb missing six games with a fractured right ankle.

The Eagles will be trying to secure only their second Super Bowl berth in club history. Philadelphia made its other Super Bowl appearance in the 1980 season, posting a 20-7 victory over the Dallas Cowboys here in the championship game before losing to the Oakland Raiders in the Louisiana Superdome.

Known for its rowdy fans and horrible playing surface, Veterans Stadium has been home to the Eagles since 1971. The Eagles are 8-1 at home this season, including playoffs and have posted a 143-110-2 mark, including 7-3 in the playoffs, all-time in the building. Next season, the Eagles move into Lincoln Financial Field.

Eagles Pro Bowl cornerback Troy Vincent said he is thankful to be facing the Bucs at home.

"We're just happy to have this game played at Veterans Stadium, not just for ourselves but for the community and the fans," Vincent said. "It's going to be a good way to see Veterans Stadium be put to rest.

"We know how important it is. When you have homefield advantage for the NFC Championship game, that's when it becomes important. That's when that 12th man really plays a huge part in the outcome of the football game."

It is the first time a stadium's final NFL game has been a conference championship contest since Dallas defeated San Francisco at Kesar Stadium on Jan. 3, 1971 en route to Super Bowl V.

Even with Gruden, who is considered one of the best offensive minds in the game, the Bucs were not able to generate much offensively in the first meeting against the Eagles this season.

Gruden is familiar with the Eagles. He served as the club's offensive coordinator from 1995-97 before being hired as the coach of the Oakland Raiders. Gruden and Eagles Coach Andy Reid both served on Mike Holmgren's coaching staff in the 1990s.

On Oct. 20, the Bucs once again were held without an offensive touchdown in a 20-10 loss. Linebacker Derrick Brooks, the NFL Defensive Player of the Year, accounted for the Bucs' only touchdown by returning a fumble by McNabb 11 yards for a score.

The Bucs' offense looked overmatched against the aggresssive Eagles, who consistently blitzed quarterback Brad Johnson. The Tampa Bay quarterback completed 19 of 31 passes for 124 yards and an interception while also getting sacked six times.

The running game also was a non-factor. Michael Pittman carried 12 times for 49 yards and bruising fullback Mike Alstott was held to 14 yards and a lost a fumble.

Alstott says the Bucs are ready for this visit to Veterans Stadium.

"Trust me, there is a different mind-set," Alstot said. "We aren't the same team that has gone up there in the past. Every situation is a new one. This situation, we think, is a great one for us."

Vincent also knows the Bucs will be no pushovers.

"They're coming back up north and they didn't like the outcome of the last game and they spoke about that candidly," he said. "They're going to put together a good plan this week."

McNabb was able to make enough plays against the NFL's top-ranked defense, completing 12 of 25 passes for 125 yards with one touchdown and an interception. He also ran one yard for a score.

But while McNabb was contained, the Bucs failed to control Duce Staley, who carried 24 times for 152 yards. Staley should once again see his share of carries against Tampa Bay, which tries to make up for its smallish front with its speed.

Despite any offensive adjustments by either team, this contest figures to be a defensive struggle. The Bucs boast the NFL's top-ranked defense while the Eagles were fourth. Tampa Bay will be looking for a better effort from Pro Bowl tackle Warren Sapp, who has nine tackles and no sacks in the two playoff losses to the Eagles. He has been controlled by guard John Welbourn .

Defensively, the Bucs were at their best in last Sunday's divisional round against San Francisco, forcing five turnovers and holding the 49ers to 227 total yards in a dominating 31-6 victory.

It also was a breakthrough game offensively. Brad Johnson passed for 196 yards and two touchdowns and Alstott rushed for 60 yards and two scores as the Bucs set a club record for points scored in a playoff game.

In addition to their struggles here, the Bucs have to deal with the label of not being able to play in the cold. They are 1-21 all-time when the game-time temperature is 40 degrees. But they got that victory in the regular-season finale this season, posting a 15-0 victory at Chicago.

The Eagles reached this round last Saturday with a 20-6 victory over the Atlanta Falcons.

Making his return to the lineup, McNabb completed 20 of 30 passes for 247 yards, including a 35-yard touchdown pass to James Thrash in the fourth quarter.

The Eagles also got the job done defensively against the Falcons, limiting electrifying quarterback Michael Vick to 30 yards rushing while sacking him three times and coming up with two interceptions. Bobby Taylor returned one of the interceptions 39 yards for a touchdown in the first quarter.

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