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What happened?

Bucs try to avoid the letdown that cost them last season vs. Eagles

[Times photo: James Borchuck]
Warren Sapp, in the No. 99 cap, and teammates watch the closing moments of last season's playoff loss to the Eagles.

By RICK STROUD, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published January 9, 2002


TAMPA -- It wasn't the cold, the intimidating atmosphere of Veterans Stadium, the lack of a running game or the scrambling Philadelphia quarterback that was responsible for the Bucs' embarrassing 21-3 loss to the Eagles in the NFC wild-card game last season.

The Bucs blew that game seven days earlier.

When Martin Gramatica missed what would have been a winning 40-yard field goal at Lambeau Field, the Bucs lost the NFC Central title, a bye week and at least one home playoff game. Instead, Tampa Bay fell in overtime to the Packers 17-14 and their postseason chances were over.

"I think when you look at going up to Green Bay, we had the chance to win the division and I think it was a big letdown at that point," Bucs safety John Lynch said. "And I think we let that hangover carry into the Philly game."

"I probably did a poor job of handling that and getting us over (the Green Bay) loss," coach Tony Dungy said.

According to some players, the lack of emotion was tangible on the sideline.

"There was definitely a lack of energy on our sideline, for whatever reason," cornerback Ronde Barber said. "I have no idea why.

"You work all season to get into the playoffs. You should be excited. It's a four-game playoff for everybody. We went up there with a lack of energy to start with on the first play of the game. We were getting thrown around up front, not making plays in the secondary, letting (quarterback Donovan) McNabb escape, get passes off. We just lost focus and in the second half, the game just got out of hand."

The Bucs, 0-5 in playoff games on the road, blew a chance to put the Eagles in the hole when they settled for a second-quarter 29-yard field goal by Gramatica to lead 3-0.

It was a surrender of sorts by the Bucs, especially when then-offensive coordinator Les Steckel attempted a draw play by Warrick Dunn on third-and-6 from the Eagles 12-yard line.

From that point on, the Bucs were dominated. Quarterback Shaun King was sacked by defensive end Hugh Douglas and lost a fumble at the Tampa Bay 15. McNabb ran for one touchdown and threw for another before halftime. The Bucs mustered 199 yards, 50 on the ground, and were 3-of-13 on third down.

Defensively, it was the Bucs' failure to keep McNabb in the pocket that cost them.

Time after time, he broke the containment of left defensive end Chidi Ahanotu. McNabb completed passes to 10 receivers, finishing 24-of-33 for 161 yards and rushing eight times for 32 yards.

"We let the quarterback out of the pocket. You can't do that," Bucs defensive tackle Warren Sapp said. "Let this guy out of the pocket, he's going to kill you. To our left, his right. That's where he naturally can run, his shoulders are already square.

"Just play him within the framework of the defense. Don't ever go behind him, because if you go behind him, you might as well buy his ticket to the end zone. Just be at the level and we'll see if we can keep him in this pocket and bottle him. You've got to contain him. He's too dangerous. He can throw the ball 60 yards on the run. I've seen him do it. ... If you don't know he's their whole team, you're blind."

So why does Sapp feel confident about containing McNabb on Saturday?

"That man over there, he's not going to let him out of the pocket," Sapp said. "Steve White will not let him out of the pocket."

There also should be no emotional letdown like last season. The Bucs have known for weeks they would most likely enter the playoffs as a wild card, and have to win on the road.

Lynch said the Bucs will approach the playoffs with more confidence and emotion.

"Last year, we wished we would've been home (for a bye week)," Lynch said. "We've known for a while that wasn't going to be a possibility so you've prepared your mind for it and I think we're ready for the challenge. They're a physical football team and we're going to have to match that."

Avenging last year's loss to the Eagles will not be the carrot Dungy dangles in front of his team this week.

"When you're going into the playoffs your motivation is to win and to move on," he said. "I guess it would be nice to go into the same stadium and play better and win a game where we didn't win the year before. But a lot of guys weren't even here. Their motivation will be to win."

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