© St. Petersburg Times, published January 20, 2003
PHILADELPHIA -- Dogged defense has been the one unflagging certainty for the Bucs in their four seasons of flirtation with the Super Bowl.
After waiting for and finally watching the offense catch up, it was not about to lose its chance at history Sunday.
Despite allowing a touchdown on the third play of the game, set up by Brian Mitchell's 70-yard return on the opening kickoff, the top-rated defense in the NFL clamped down, allowing 312 total yards -- 30 in the third quarter -- sacked quarterback Donovan McNabb twice, both times causing fumbles -- and did not allow a point after the 8:06 mark of the second quarter.
Result: Super Bowl.
"I think this defense, we will be in the folklore of the NFL," said defensive end Simeon Rice, who forced and recovered a McNabb fumble before the end of the first half. "We knew that was why we were playing this game (Sunday).
"All of us on this team have had accolades, but as a unit, we had not made that final step."
For all the complicated schemes defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin devised to stop the Eagles' West Coast offense, the most basic component made it work: tackling.
"Tackling and turnovers, that was the difference from October (a 20-10 Bucs loss in Philadelphia)," said linebacker Derrick Brooks, who had six solo tackles. "We stayed in our game."
Running back Duce Staley, the type of power back that often had menaced the Bucs, finished with 58 yards on 13 carries but gained 32 yards after the first quarter when his 20-yard run gave the Eagles a 7-0 lead.
McNabb, who completed 26-of-49 for 243 yards and rushed for 17, was not the playmaker that found fissures in the Bucs defense in beating it four consecutive times.
Held to 92 yards passing until two desperation drives in the fourth, and contained by the pass rush, he pulled up to throw into a pass defense that had negated receivers Todd Pinkston, James Thrash and Antonio Freeman, all of whom had 40 or more receptions this season. The crossing routes that had in the past yielded defensive confusion and large gains were defended so tightly, McNabb began working for yardage on the sideline.
His attempt to do so in the final seven minutes was ambushed by cornerback Ronde Barber, who stepped in front of Freeman for a 92-yard interception return for touchdown.
"We play pretty good defense around here, and they were supposed to mash us," defensive tackle Warren Sapp said. "They even had Wilbert Montgomery out on the field running around before the game. They should have put his butt in the backfield."
The Bucs defense held the Eagles down as the offense slowly smothered them.
With the Eagles ahead 7-3 and the Veterans Stadium crowd throbbing, the Bucs held Philadelphia to one first down on its next two possessions. By the Eagles' third possession, the Bucs led 10-7.
An Eagles offense that was fourth-best in the league in points drove to the Bucs 12 and 24 on its final drives of the first half but got only a 30-yard field goal from David Akers.
McNabb seemed to marshal a potential tying drive in the final two minutes of the first half when he hit Freeman for 23 yards to the Buc 24, but on third and 10 with 24 seconds left, Rice came from behind and slashed the ball loose as McNabb prepared to throw.
Rice plopped on the ball to end the Eagles' last credible drive until the last seven minutes, when McNabb drove the Eagles to the Bucs 10 with a manic nine-play drive. That drive ended with Barber celebrating in the opposite end zone.
"We're good. I'm not scared to admit it," said Barber, one of four Bucs defenders named to the Pro Bowl.
"We feel like we get no respect sometimes, get snubbed in the Pro Bowl and the like, but when it comes down to executing and when it comes down to playing, we show up every weekend."
They have one more left.