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Bucs fighting off apparent deja vu

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By GARY SHELTON, Times Sports Columnist

© St. Petersburg Times
published January 12, 2002

PHILADELPHIA -- Stop me if you've seen this before.

It is cold here. Oddly enough, it was cold here last year.

The fans were bonkers. In a bold prediction, they will be bonkers again today.

The Bucs are coming off a disappointing defeat to finish a season in which they made a late rush to salvage an underachieving beginning, just like last year. The wind came in from the west, Hugh Douglas came in from the left and Donovan McNabb rolled easily to the right.

Yep, here we are again, and here the Bucs are again, ready to play the Philadelphia Eagles in a wild-card playoff game.

And what, pray tell, makes you think the outcome will be any different this time around?

Welcome to the scene of the grime. It was here, 377 days ago, that the Bucs were frost-bitten, snake-bitten and chewed up by the Eagles in a 21-3 defeat. It was an embarrassing, lingering kind of defeat, one that left the offensive coordinator fired, the quarterback demoted, the defensive end dismissed and everyone else embarrassed.

A loss today, and all of that could happen again.

Also, the head coach could lose his job, too.

Even now you can picture the Eagles, shoving the Bucs around in the second half, and the Bucs looking chilled, spilled and killed and dispatched. They lost in the cold because they always do (that was No. 20 in the 40-degrees-and-under winless chart). They lost on the road in a playoff game, because they always do (the team is 0-5, lifetime).

You can make a case that was the day Tampa Bay changed the way it looked at the Bucs. It left a feeling of dissatisfaction that lingered throughout the offseason and, perhaps, through this season. It created the impression the Bucs' achievements are beneath their abilities. It began the talk of a coach.

So will today's rematch be live, or will it be Memorex?

"I don't know what to say to convince other people that it will be different," safety John Lynch said. "But we're convinced it will be."

The Bucs want you to believe that's the first difference. That they are looking ahead, not behind. That's a nice change of direction. Last season the minds of the players were somewhere on Lambeau Field, where the team had lost a game when Martin Gramatica missed a last-second field goal. It was a defeat the Bucs now admit was impossible to let go of.

Warren Sapp: Bucs won't be caught looking behind, like last year.
"We were still trying to figure a way to get back to Green Bay and give Martin another chance," defensive tackle Warren Sapp said. "We had them. We were going to have a week off. We were going to be one win at home from the NFC Championship Game. Nobody wanted to go to Philadelphia."

"I could have done a better job of erasing that from our minds," says Dungy, who reportedly will be replaced by Bill Parcells if his team does not win.

Once in Philly last year, the Bucs liked the local even less. They couldn't run the ball. They couldn't figure out third down. They couldn't figure out McNabb.

This time, the Bucs also are coming off a defeat, technically. They lost to the Eagles last week in a game played largely by the substitutes of both teams. The Bucs say they still have the swagger of the team that won five of six before Sunday.

John Lynch: "We're one of the hottest teams in football."
"We're one of the hottest teams in football," Lynch said. "We're playing defensively as well as we've ever played."

Sure enough, the Bucs defense has improved from its ninth-place finish to sixth this year. Derrick Brooks seems healthy again. Ronde Barber has had a breakout year. Simeon Rice has played well.

Will that be enough to contain McNabb? We'll see. Will the Bucs stop Duce Staley, who missed last year's game? We'll see. As Dungy will remind you, the Eagles are a better team than a year ago.

Are the Bucs headed for another edition of misery? Who is to say Douglas won't be a terror again? Who is to say McNabb doesn't blow up? Who is to say the three points scored last year weren't a bonanza?

The Bucs would tell you there are reasons to believe. They are healthier than a year ago. They are more familiar with the Eagles, having two weeks to prepare. They have run the ball better the past month.

Then again, there is quarterback Brad Johnson.

If nothing else, last year's Eagles game produced the final arguments against offensive coordinator Les Steckel, who was fired, and quarterback Shaun King, who watched as the Bucs brought in Johnson to play the position. Neither Clyde Christensen, the new offensive coordinator, nor Johnson have won over the general public. But Keyshawn Johnson thinks it's an upgrade.

"Last year, I don't know what the hell we were doing," he said.

This season, the offense has been weak. It has, however, moved the ball better in the final minutes of the half.

"There's something to that," Lynch said. "When we were behind 14-3 last year, it's like the game was over. Now we know we can come back."

All of this said, the Bucs have some proving to do. They will have to win a close playoff game on the road, in the cold, in the wind, with hostile fans hanging over the rail. Either that, or today's game will look very much like a rerun.

As for the offseason, it will be bloodier.

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