© St. Petersburg Times, published January 13, 2003
TAMPA -- The day will be miserable. Again.
The mood will be as ugly as ever. The same old faces in the same old seats will scream the same old profanities. The same rust will be on the girders, the same dust in the locker room. The field will be hard, the wind will have teeth and the vultures will circle in the sky.
In other words, it will be Philadelphia.
Why, then, should anyone think the result of next week's game between the Eagles and Bucs will be any different?
This is the question that matters. Oh, celebrate Sunday's 31-6 victory by the Bucs over the 49ers as long as you wish. The Bucs haven't exactly won a staggering amount of playoff games, so savor what you can while you can. Talk about the dominating defense. Talk about the improved offense. Talk about the bloody quarterback.
Now, back to Philly.
Moments after the game against the 49ers, seconds really, the old dump known as Veterans Stadium was on their minds again. Of course it was. After all, so many Buc seasons have gone there to die. For the Bucs, the Vet is the stuff of nightmares, a boneyard of failures gone by.
Could this season be different?
Yes, actually. It could.
This would come as quite the surprise in Philly, where it can be assumed fans are not hiding under their coffee tables. In fact, Eagles fans probably celebrated Tampa Bay's victory as hard as Bucs fans. The perception in Philly is the Eagles have the Bucs' number, and they keep it in a glass case next to the Liberty Bell.
Two playoff spankings in a row, not to mention a decisive victory this season, leaves that kind of an impression.
This is a different Bucs team, however. There is a different confidence, a different mind-set than the past two playoff losers. Perhaps that won't be enough. Still, Tampa Bay will have its best shot at beating the Eagles in its past three tries.
Remember two seasons ago, when the Bucs went to the Eagles as an angry, distracted team? The Bucs wouldn't have had to play that week had Martin Gramatica not missed a field goal in the regular season finale against Green Bay. The result was the Bucs' heads never were in the game, and the Eagles won easily.
Remember last season, when the Bucs went to the Eagles as a disappointing, fractured team? The Bucs had finished 9-7, and there was already a spreading feeling of disappointment. There were reports Tony Dungy would be fired if the team lost. The result was the Bucs fell behind early and disintegrated. The last two quarters? Dead Men Walking.
The Bucs never had a chance in those two games. This time, the disposition is different. The Bucs seem hungry, eager for another shot at the Eagles.
"In the past, we had to work so hard just to make it into the playoffs, that maybe we were a little burnt," safety John Lynch said. "This year, we're fresh. Our defense is playing well, and our offense is peaking."
There is another difference. There is Jon Gruden, who gives off the notion that he thinks it's a grand idea to go to Philadelphia, that he cannot imagine spending a January weekend anywhere else. You half expect him to grin and say, "Golly, maybe there will be snow!"
That's the kind of juice Gruden brings with him, and it's why he has been good for this Bucs team. He'll push and prod, and he'll make his little comments, and for the first time, he'll have his team revved to go to Philadelphia. Better yet, for the first time, he'll make it want to come out after halftime.
"We're going to play any place," Gruden said. "Whether it's in the Vet or on the Walt Whitman bridge."
Let's be honest. It hasn't just been the weather or the mind-set the past two seasons. The Eagles give the Bucs fits in a lot of matchups. The offensive line has blunted the Bucs' pass rush. Tampa Bay's offense hasn't scored a touchdown since, let's see, 1911. The secondary has surrounded the Bucs' receivers. As for defensive end Hugh Douglas, he's throwing a no-hitter against Tampa Bay; no one has hit him yet.
For the first time, however, the Bucs aren't going to Philadelphia thinking of all the ways they could have avoided the trip. From the sounds of it, they're thinking, after four years, after 208 weeks, that they are 60 minutes from a Super Bowl. At your nearby airport, pigs are on standby for takeoff.
"We have more than enough reason to go to Philly and lay it all on the line," Bucs guard Cosey Coleman said. "We owe Philly. We don't like Philly. If you can't be ready now, you don't belong. Who better would you want to play? Who better as far as a reason to get amped, to get crunked? Philly is the one team the Bucs want to see."
It figures that it comes down to this. All season long, you figured that if the Bucs were going to reach the Super Bowl, the road would go through Philadelphia. Even Derrick Brooks admits "a little piece of me" believed that.
That means walking past all the familiar tombstones, past all the heartache and the humiliations, to get to the field. It means chasing McNabb and trying to contain Staley and trying to contend with a fierce defense.
"Put me 60 minutes from the Biggest Show on Earth, and I don't care where it is," defensive tackle Warren Sapp said. "It ain't going to be easy, but if it was easy, you wouldn't want it."
Say what you will, then, about the Bucs' chances of reaching the Super Bowl. Call it a puncher's chance, an underdog's chance, a dreamer's chance.
For a change, however, they have a chance.
Which makes it, of course, their best one.