Bucs hope they pass Eagles test
Winning in Philadelphia would silence critics who doubt Tampa Bay is as good as its 5-1 record.
By RICK STROUD, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published October 20, 2002
PHILADELPHIA -- There are many doubters and disbelievers who view the Bucs' early season success with suspicion.
These people look at the five-game winning streak and do not find a team Tampa Bay has beaten that has a winning record.
They insist to be taken seriously, the Bucs need to defeat the Eagles today at Veterans Stadium.
What a cynical bunch.
And those are the ones with lockers at One Buc Place.
"For me, it's a get them, get-over-the-hump type game," receiver Keyshawn Johnson said. "I don't know what everybody else is thinking. But for me, it's a Big ... Time ... Game.
"Somebody asked me in the beginning of the season, I said we were going to be 5-1 going into Philadelphia. Now, can we be 9-1 playing Green Bay here? I don't share that with a lot of my teammates. But that's the goal for me."
Having lost three straight to the Eagles, including wild-card playoff defeats at the Vet that ended the Bucs' past two seasons, Tampa Bay is looking for vengeance and vindication.
"It's two very good ballclubs that look like they're going to be in it until the end," defensive tackle Warren Sapp said. "It's kind of a measuring stick. No doubt about it, it is."
Defensive end Simeon Rice described it another way.
"This is a benchmark game," Rice said. "It's like a playoff atmosphere, whether we say it or not, it's understood."
Don't believe Rice? How about cornerback Ronde Barber?
"It's the first team with a winning record. That pretty much says it all," Barber said. "So, they're the only team that's playing well that we've played so far. Except New Orleans, but they beat us. But if you look at the teams that we've beaten, none of them were really playing that well. If we get a win, this will be like beating a team that was playing well."
Is that fair, questioning the legitimacy of a team just one victory shy of the best start in club history?
"Yeah, it's always fair because they're always going to look back and say what's the record of the people you've played?" general manager Rich McKay said. "And so this is a big game from that perspective."
The Eagles aren't exactly flying high at 3-2, coming off a bye week and a loss two weeks ago at Jacksonville. But in their two playoff appearances at Veterans Stadium, Tampa Bay has yet to muster a touchdown, losing 21-3 during the 2000 season and 31-9 in January.
Those Philly follies may be a thing of the past for the Bucs. Today, they have the NFL's No. 1 defense in yardage and points allowed and have not allowed an offensive touchdown in 12 straight quarters.
Meanwhile, Eagles quarterback Donovan McNabb has been under pressure, having been sacked 19 times in five games. The Bucs did a decent job of containing Falcons quarterback Michael Vick before knocking him out of the game in the second half and think they will continue their streak of 50 games with at least one sack.
"You've got to check the big boys," Sapp said. "You check the quarterbacks that are monsters to get and this is definitely the one to get. You check off big game."
If the Bucs have an advantage over their last three losses against the Eagles, it's coach Jon Gruden and his offense. Philadelphia's bye week enabled defensive coordinator Jim Johnson to devise more blitzes against Tampa Bay, and Gruden has worked hard to anticipate them.
"They'll probably have the peanut vendor coming from Row 7, coming on some type of blitz at some point in time," McKay said. "That will be a challenge.
"But (Gruden) has probably looked at this guy (Jim Johnson) when he was coaching in junior high. He's looked at a lot of tape."
So what happens if the Bucs lose today? Unlike the past two years, their season will be far from over.
"In the grand scheme of things, maybe it doesn't mean much," safety John Lynch said. "If we lose, shoot, we're 5-2. But that's not the way you want to approach it. I'd rather approach it like it is a must win.
"I think the key is to approach like it's next on the schedule and prepare the best way we know how. There's a lot of reasons for us to become confident. We're playing extremely well on the road. We've overcome some tough situations on the road. It bodes well."
For all the acknowledgement that today's game is a yardstick for the Bucs, it only counts once in the standings, win, lose or tie.
"At the end of the day, when you get to the end of the season, I don't know anybody who's ever said it's relevant who you beat and who you didn't beat as long as you won enough games," McKay said.
"It may be for purposes of sitting around the coffeemaker next week and say, boy, the Bucs are or aren't as good. But I don't know that it is when you get to Week 16 and look at the final record."
What about the doubters?
"That's fine. But I know what we've got," Sapp said. "(Gruden) won't let me talk about it, but I know what we've got.
"All you naysayers and doubters and all that. That's fine, line right up."
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