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THE FIRST WORD
As if playing in front of Veterans Stadium fans wasn't enough, Bucs kicker Martin Gramatica has to handle kicking on what can be slippery turf in swirling winds.
"You get wind every week, pretty much unless you're in a dome, but the wind is pretty strong up there," Gramatica said. "It blows pretty hard. We've just got to deal with it in pregame. With enough kicks in pregame, I'll know what to do in the game."
With snow flurries expected over the weekend, Gramatica said he has to be prepared for changes during the game.
"Well, you hope not, but sometimes it does happen," he said. "But I just have to get an idea of where I need to aim, where I need to kick it to keep the ball going where it needs to go."
The Bucs and Eagles have met twice in the past 12 months. In the opening round of the playoffs last season, the Eagles waxed the Bucs 31-9 at Veterans Stadium. It was the third consecutive loss for the Bucs against the Eagles. The Bucs managed 63 yards rushing, while the Eagles got 148. Brad Johnson passed for 202 yards with no touchdowns and four interceptions, while Donovan McNabb was 16-of-25 for 194 yards, two touchdowns and one pick. The teams met again on Oct. 20 this season, again at the Vet, and again the Eagles prevailed. In a 20-10 loss, the Bucs struggled on the ground (81 yards) though they held McNabb to 127 yards passing and one touchdown.
Bucs coach Jon Gruden has caught the attention of his team by not only coming up with inspirational pregame speeches but making it clear everyone, even Pro Bowl players, are accountable. At one point this season, Gruden called out Pro Bowl safety John Lynch in front of the team.
"I wasn't stunned; I liked that," Lynch said. "I want a coach to call me out. He's probably called everyone out on the team at a different time. He has a feel for what it's going to take that particular week and he'll call you out on it."
This season's loss to the Eagles, many members of the team said, was a turning point for the fortunes of the offense. "I think from that game on ... we really took off as an offense." said quarterback Brad Johnson, who led the Bucs to a 27.2 point average in the next seven games he played. "The passing game actually has thrown some more touchdown passes. (Before) we were moving the ball but not making a lot of big plays."
In a league that's supposed to be in love with the passing game and high scoring, there clearly still is room for defensive-minded teams. The Bucs and the Eagles are two of four teams (Panthers and Dolphins were the others) who ranked in the top 10 in the three major defensive categories.
"I think it's real fitting that in a year where the offensive explosion has reached new heights in the league, in the NFC the No. 1 and No. 2 defenses are turning it out into a grudge match," Lynch said.
2 -- interceptions for Johnson in the past seven games.
18 -- touchdowns for Johnson in the past seven games.
181 -- total receiving yards for Keyshawn Johnson in his past two playoff games in Philadelphia.
"We have an opportunity of a lifetime, to be a part of something special, to be on the road, 60 minutes away from the Super Bowl. It's exponential. I can't really put it into words, so I'm not going to try. The best way to do it is to go out and express yourself in a more physical way." -- defensive end Simeon Rice on what lays ahead.
-- Compiled by Roger Mills.