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Diane Pucin

Buccaneers' Poise Stills Crowd, Eagles

January 20, 2003|Diane Pucin

PHILADELPHIA — The defense, we knew about.

The offense, we've found out about.

The Tampa Bay Buccaneers, they're going to San Diego.

In a matter of a few minutes Sunday at Veterans Stadium, the Buccaneers became fully formed.

In the mewling, howling, stadium-shaking noise of the Vet, after Brian Mitchell had run back the opening kickoff 70 yards and Duce Staley had gone the final 20 yards on the second play from scrimmage so that Philadelphia led, 7-0, before a minute had passed in the NFC championship game, while all the know-it-alls in the press box nodded and said, "It's over," and all the green-faced fanatics in the stands started calling their travel agents for flights to San Diego, Jon Gruden told his quarterback to be careful, be prudent and make the Buccaneers go.

So Brad Johnson did. With his ears ringing from the noise from heavens -- or hell -- of the 700 level, and from the shouts of Gruden to follow the script, trust his offensive line and just keep moving forward, Johnson did the right things.

He handed off and running back Michael Pittman found holes. And he handed off to brick-solid fullback Mike Alstott, who always finds holes. Or he makes them by pile-driving forward. Johnson threw safe passes, just over the line of scrimmage but short enough to frustrate the Eagle secondary. Johnson hit three receivers for no gain shorter than six yards, no longer than 13 yards.

The drive did not conclude in the end zone. But the 48-yard field goal, in some large sense, was the game-winner.

The nine-play, 37-yard drive, taking 4 minutes 10 seconds, settled everything down. Settled down the foaming fans, calmed down the Buccaneer butterflies, stopped the Eagles in their tracks and on the sideline. The Eagles had been doing jumping jacks and exchanging high fives and back slaps and helmet hits after Staley's touchdown and until Martin Gramatica's field goal.

"But that first drive," Johnson said, "it was so important to us. It just solidified the confidence we had come here with. In this stadium, in this atmosphere, things can get away from you quickly. We just had to put things in order for ourselves right away."

That was the first big moment.

The second came later in the first quarter when Johnson hit Joe Jurevicius with a little slant pass at the Tampa Bay 28. Jurevicius ran and ran, up the sideline, ducking away from tacklers for a 71-yard gain to the Eagle five.

Jurevicius almost didn't come to the game. His wife had given birth a month early last Tuesday. Jurevicius didn't practice for two days or travel with the team Friday. After his catch, Jurevicius was mobbed by his teammates. After Alstott gained the final five yards in two runs, and scored the touchdown, the first touchdown on offense Tampa Bay had scored against the Eagles in three playoff games, Alstott came to Jurevicius and hugged the receiver.

The final big moment, the moment when it was clear the Buccaneers had become a Super Bowl team, was when cornerback Ronde Barber -- more used to playing second string to his twin, New York Giant running back Tiki -- swiped a pass from in front of Antonio Freeman and ran it 92 yards for the game's final touchdown, for a franchise's myth-shattering touchdown.

The Buccaneers aren't bad any more. They aren't bunglers, they aren't pathetic, they aren't cursed, they aren't losers.

They had taken small, sturdy steps under Tony Dungy. They had learned to be serious, to be defenders. But they seemed to miss a fire, an emphatic belief in themselves. They seemed to be short of enthusiasm at the end, with just a bit too much fatalism.

"Now we are always optimistic," Barber said. "Jon Gruden has brought that to us."

Don't underestimate optimism. Or confidence.

"We really, really believed we would win here," Johnson said.

"You start to believe in yourself when you are told every day that you are doing things right," Johnson said.

The Buccaneers believed they had the better team. They believed they had the better defense, the better coach, and an offense that was more a help than a hindrance.

They had been convinced by Gruden that the 20-10 loss they'd suffered here earlier this season was not like the other losses they'd had to the Eagles over the last few years. This time, Gruden told them, they had just not done things properly. Because if they did, Gruden said, they were better than the Eagles.

And Sunday they did things properly. They gave up an early score because they let the best kick returner in the game get away from them. So they quit kicking to Mitchell. They showed that their defense was filled with better, quicker, stronger athletes than were on the Eagle defense.

If they let Mitchell get away from them once, they never let Donovan McNabb get away, not on foot or with his arm. It was no fluke, what happened at the Vet.

The final score was a perfect reflection. Tampa Bay 27, Philadelphia 10. The better team, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, won.

*

Diane Pucin can be reached at diane.pucin@latimes.com.

*(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

The Matchup

TAMPA BAY vs. OAKLAND

Regular season records: Tampa Bay, 12-4 (won NFC South);

Oakland, 11-5 (won AFC West).

How teams got to Super Bowl: Tampa Bay d. San Francisco, 31-6, in divisional playoffs, d. Philadelphia, 27-10 in NFC championship game; Oakland d. N.Y. Jets, 30-10, in divisional playoff game, d. Tennessee, 41-24, in AFC championship game.

Head to head (2002): Did not play.

All-time series: Oakland leads, 4-1.

Record vs. common opponents (2002): Tampa Bay 2-0, Oakland 0-2 vs. St. Louis, San Francisco.

NFL rank, rushing offense: Tampa Bay 27th; Oakland 18th.

NFL rank, passing offense: Tampa Bay 15th; Oakland 1st.

NFL rank, total offense: Tampa Bay 24th; Oakland 1st.

NFL rank, rushing defense: Tampa Bay 5th; Oakland 3rd.

NFL rank, passing defense: Tampa Bay 1st; Oakland 23rd.

NFL rank, total defense: Tampa Bay 1st; Oakland 11th.

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