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A Laugher

TAMPA BAY 31, SAN FRANCISCO 6: Johnson's return and stellar defense propel Bucs to third NFC title game.

By RICK STROUD, Times Staff Writer

© St. Petersburg Times, published January 13, 2003

TAMPA -- Brad Johnson held a towel to the gash above his right eye with one hand and balled his other into a fist, pumping it toward the crowd at Raymond James Stadium as he was carted off the field.

The Bucs quarterback sustained a nasty cut after 49ers linebacker Derek Smith reached inside his face mask during a 5-yard scramble early in the third quarter of Sunday's NFC divisional playoff game.

But by the time trainers closed the wound with seven stitches, Johnson already had sewn up the Bucs' third appearance in the NFC Championship.

Playing his first game in 28 days, Johnson looked more rested than rusted in throwing two first-half touchdowns in a 31-6 rout of San Francisco.

While Johnson's injury is not serious, the Bucs' next opponent could draw a little bad blood.

Tampa Bay travels to Philadelphia on Sunday for the NFC title game, marking the third consecutive season the Bucs will face the Eagles in the postseason. But this time, it's for the right to play in Super Bowl XXXVII in San Diego.

The Bucs (13-4) have lost four consecutive games to the Eagles (13-4) since 2000, including 20-10 at Veterans Stadium on Oct.20. Tampa Bay lost wild-card games in Philadelphia the past two seasons and was outscored 52-12.

"We're not going to sit here and try to justify what happened two or three years ago and what happened last year," Bucs coach Jon Gruden said. "It's irrelevant. We respect Philadelphia this year because of what they've done this season. What happened last year is not going to help us or hurt us in any way.

"We realize we have our hands full. We're going to get on the plane, and we're going to play any place. Whether it's in the Vet or on the Walt Whitman bridge. We're going to be there."

Johnson's performance Sunday gives the Bucs hope that maybe this season will be different.

After throwing an interception to end his first series in a month, Johnson and the Bucs converted nine of their first 10 third downs and scored touchdowns on three of their next four series to build a 28-6 halftime lead.

Running back Mike Alstott scored on two 2-yard runs, and Johnson fired scoring strikes to Joe Jurevicius and Rickey Dudley, ending the Bucs' streak of 12 quarters without a touchdown in the postseason.

San Francisco, which produced the second-biggest comeback in playoff history by erasing a 24-point lead against the Giants on Jan.5, could not rally against the NFL's top-ranked defense.

Tampa Bay forced five turnovers, three interceptions and two fumbles, and sacked scrambling Niners quarterback Jeff Garcia four times. The Bucs also shut down the NFC's second-leading receiver, Terrell Owens, holding him to four catches for 35 yards.

But the difference was the play of the Bucs offense.

"The bull was ready to bite," defensive tackle Warren Sapp said of Johnson. "The bull was ready to bite two weeks ago. He said if it were a playoff game, he was ready to roll. We were just waiting to get him back.

"This offense ain't nothing like the last three we took into the playoffs. No way, shape or form. There's not even a same formation. I don't even think we line up in regular the same way we lined up in regular before. It's just different, and you can see it on the scoreboard."

After the comeback against the Giants and a 3,000-mile trip, San Francisco had just 228 yards of total offense and allowed Tampa Bay to dominate the time of possession (36:46 to 23:14).

The 65,559 fans were given spirit flags, and it looked as though Niners coach Steve Mariucci waved a white one just before halftime.

Trailing 28-6 with the ball at their 40 and two timeouts left, the Niners let the final 45 seconds run off the clock and went into the locker room instead of running another play.

"After we had the first run that went for pretty good yardage, positive yardage, I thought that we were in a position to work a couple of throws downfield and potentially come away with an attempted field goal," Garcia said. "But the decision of the coaches was to, somewhat, play it conservative and just go in at halftime without making any more mistakes.

"That's their decision, and I live with it. I looked over to the sideline to see if we wanted to call a timeout after Garrison (Hearst) broke off the run, but the answer was no. We were just going to huddle up and run the clock out."

Maybe Mariucci knew something. On the first play of the second half, Owens tried to one-hand a pass from Garcia. It bounced off of his knee and into the arms of cornerback Dwight Smith.

The Bucs said they could see some quit in the 49ers' eyes.

"You looked in their eyes and knew they just shut it down," cornerback Brian Kelly said. "They came out of a hard-fought game. They fly all the way to the East Coast, and they didn't have it in their tank."

Under Gruden, the Bucs believe they won't run out of gas Sunday at Veterans Stadium, which will be demolished after the NFC Championship.

In his past seven games, Johnson has thrown 17 touchdowns and two interceptions and the Bucs have averaged more than 27 points.

"We're a different team than we were last year, and we're a different team than we were however many weeks ago we played them there," Bucs cornerback Ronde Barber said. "We've been in this position. About three years ago, we had a chance to go on the road and win an NFC Championship and go to a Super Bowl. And I can't imagine us being denied again.

"I'll tell you how Jon told us. We've got the best defense. We've got the best quarterback, the best kicker. We're not happy to be in the playoffs. We're on a quest. We've done some damage this year because we're No.1 in a lot of different things. And there's a reason we're No.1 in a lot of these things. We don't plan on stopping next week in Philly."

But history will be working against the Bucs, who have never won a road playoff game.

They came the closest Jan.23, 2000, clinging to a 6-5 lead with about four minutes left at St. Louis before losing 11-6 in the NFC Championship.

"Someone asked me if this is exactly what you want. And my answer was no. I would've liked to have homefield throughout," Bucs safety John Lynch said. "But sure, if this is the circumstances, I think what we've said is if you're good enough to get there, you're going to get there however. What better way than to face the guys who have sent us home the last two years?

"It's a good, good, football team; one that's playing extremely well right now. It's their quest, too, to get to San Diego. I'm sure it's going to be a great matchup. They're feeling confident. We're feeling confident. May the best team win."

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