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[Times photo: Bill Serne]
Police officers ride across the turf on motorcycles after the game, but they don't have much to do after the loss sent fans home early.
PHILADELPHIA -- Against a defense that led the NFL with 56 sacks this season, the Bucs offensive line kept quarterback Brad Johnson in near-pristine condition, holding the Eagles without a sack.
Brad Johnson on attitude and making plays.
As the linemen posed with the NFC championship trophy in their locker room after the game, right tackle Kenyatta Walker shouted: "How about these below-average linemen?"
The last thing he heard before leaving his hotel room Sunday was criticism from Young, an ESPN analyst and former Bucs and 49ers quarterback. It served as the last bit of motivation the former first-round pick would need.
"The last thing I heard was Steve Young saying we were below average," Walker said. "He said with that below-average offensive line, there was no way we were winning this, and Gruden had to reorganize his offensive line. We're horrible.
"In the back of my mind the whole game, it was "below average.' It was this song Steve Young was singing for me: "Below average, below average, below average.' I've never been below nothing. It feels good to be a below-average offensive line going to the Super Bowl."
Defensive tackle Warren Sapp said he knew the offense was ready to play when Walker came up to him early in the game after the team had given up a touchdown and an interception set the Eagles up in Bucs territory.
"We were ready to go back on the field, and Kenyatta looks at me and says, "Get it back to us,' " Sapp said. "I said, "Let's roll.' When the puppy of our offensive line is ready to roll, everybody else has got to be ready. When your little guy is ready, you know everybody's on board. They kept moving the ball on them, all day long. There was no stopping them."
Philadelphia sacked Johnson six times in its 20-10 win on Oct. 20, but the Bucs went with a no-huddle offense Sunday to keep the defense off balance.
"Their no-huddle offense was a good thing," Philadelphia linebacker Shawn Barber said. "Their coaches did a good job of getting in and out of the huddle. They ball-controlled in the second half."
TOUGH DAY: The Eagles reached the championship game with his help, but quarterback Donovan McNabb's ineffectiveness led to Philadelphia's elimination.
"Poorly," McNabb said when asked how he played. "I'm very hard on myself. I'm pretty sure (the media) will be very critical of me as well. To let you know, I played poorly."
The two-time Pro Bowl player completed 26 of 49 passes for 243 yards and no touchdowns and fumbled twice. His 58.5 rating was his lowest this season.
Coach Andy Reid took some of the blame for McNabb's performance.
"I didn't do a good enough job getting him in a good position," Reid said. "I could've done a better job."
OH, CAPTAIN: Former Bucs Paul Gruber and Richard "Batman" Wood were Tampa Bay's honorary captains for the coin toss, which Philadelphia won.
Wood and Gruber were captains for the Bucs teams that played in the championship game in 1979 and 1999, respectively. Wood had confidence in his former team.
"It's an honor to be here for the game that's going to take the Bucs to the Super Bowl," said Wood, who coached Wharton High to the state championship game in November and will start coaching in NFL Europe in March. "The pressure is on Philadelphia. All we have to do is play 60 minutes of Buc football. Be reckless, be ruthless and relentless."
Gruber, who retired after the 1999 season and lives in Colorado, said he had good memories of Veterans Stadium, as the Bucs' troubles there started the year after he stopped playing.
"It's fun to be here," Gruber said. "This is a great group of guys. The last time I played here, we won."
MEMORIES: Eagles legend Wilbert Montgomery, whose 42-yard touchdown run opened Philadelphia's last NFC Championship Game in Veterans Stadium in 1980, was the Eagles' honorary captain. Montgomery reenacted -- slowly -- his run that keyed a 20-7 win over Dallas and sent the Eagles to Super Bowl XV in New Orleans, where they lost 27-10 to the Raiders.
IN THE RECORD BOOK: Veteran kick returner Brian Mitchell got Philadelphia off to a good start on the opening kickoff. He ran 70 yards to set Philadelphia up at the Bucs 26-yard line. The Eagles scored two plays later on a 20-yard run by running back Duce Staley.
That 70-yard return and a 43-yarder later in the game were the longest and third-longest kickoff returns in Eagles postseason history.
Mitchell's 32 career kickoff returns, 750 kickoff return yards, 34 punt returns and 339 punt returns yards are the most in postseason history.
After Mitchell's two long returns, the Bucs kicked away from him. The Eagles had 19 return yards on their remaining four kickoffs.
DISCIPLINED: The Bucs were called for only three penalties for 16 yards: a 1-yard false start by Jeff Christy on the Bucs 2-yard line, a 5-yard defensive holding penalty on Brian Kelly that gave Philadelphia a first down in the second quarter and a 10-yard holding penalty on Walker on the first play of the second half.
Philadelphia was called for five penalties for 45 yards.
BRAVE SOULS: Brett McManus stood alone, literally and figuratively, 12 rows up in Section 242, about an hour before kickoff. Wearing a Martin Gramatica jersey, recently stained from his walk through the parking lot, the 21-year-old from Nazareth, Pa., was solitary in his glory.
McManus grew up in a house full of Eagles and Giants fans, but at age 8, he made the decision to root for the Bucs "because they had, like, the worst winning percentage in NFL history. "My family had their teams, but I wanted something of my own," he said. "I've been waiting a long time for this."
So had Eagles fans, longer in fact, and Joe Howard, a public utilities worker from suburban Philadelphia, did not give a hoot about a boy and his football team and a dream come true.
"This guy's going to get a whole bunch of grief today," Howard said.
But, wasn't it mean for those in the parking lot to throw water on McManus when it was 26 degrees?
"That's the least of his worries," Howard said.
NOT SO FAST: Eagles fans got to vent their venom on one of their most hated Bucs midway through the second quarter after Keyshawn Johnson dropped a tough pass from Brad Johnson. The jeers barely had dissipated when he caught a 22-yard pass over the middle for a first down, another 9-yarder to the Eagles 10 and finished a 12-play, 80-yard drive with a 9-yard touchdown that gave the Bucs the lead for good.
After a quick word for the fans in the front row, he spiked the ball off a Bucs helmet painted on the wall.
"I hear that in every stadium I go to in this league," said Keyshawn Johnson, who had three catches for 40 yards. "(But) I know I'm going to the Super Bowl, and they're not."
COSEY COMEBACK: Bucs right guard Cosey Coleman left the game in the second quarter with a sprained right knee but returned in the second half. Todd Washington, a backup at center and guard, took Coleman's place until he returned. BIG NUMBER: As the Bucs warmed up in one end zone, Sapp could look up in the stands and see a large green banner with a white No. 99. It was a tribute to another former Miami standout, late Eagles star and Brooksville native Jerome Brown, who died in a car crash in Brooksville in 1992. Sapp said last week that one reason he's always disliked Veterans Stadium is that when he made his NFL debut there in 1995, he was disappointed the team had no permanent tribute to Brown.
SECOND EFFORT: The Bucs took a 17-10 halftime lead by outscoring the Eagles 10-3 in the second quarter in what had been their most productive quarter this season. Before Sunday, the Eagles had outscored opponents 161-61 in the second.
BAND ON THE RUN: Add rapper Ja Rule, R&B singer Ashanti and the Howard University marching band to the list of people and things -- including Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny -- booed by fans at the Vet. Surly because the Eagles were trailing, fans roundly booed all three at halftime.
ETC: Gramatica's 48-yard field goal in the first quarter was the longest in Bucs postseason history. ... Joe Jurevicius' 71-yard catch in the first quarter was the longest of his five-year career. His long of 59 yards also came against the Eagles, in his rookie season.