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Super Revenge

For the third consecutive time, a playoff game in Philly starts badly. But Sunday's game ends very differently.

By RICK STROUD, Times Staff Writer

© St. Petersburg Times, published January 20, 2003


PHILADELPHIA -- It was so quiet, you could hear a jaw drop.

When Bucs cornerback Ronde Barber intercepted a pass from the Eagles' Donovan McNabb and returned it 92 yards for a game-sealing touchdown, Veterans Stadium grew as silent as church prayer.

"It was like a bomb went off," Bucs safety John Lynch said. "I thought something was wrong. First, their team kind of stopped. I was looking for flags. The crowd was just starting to get back into the game. But it got real quiet because I guess they knew he was gone."

The Bucs are going with him -- all the way to Super Bowl XXXVII in San Diego.

Tampa Bay (14-4) stunned the Eagles 27-10 on Sunday to win the NFC championship and advance to the Super Bowl for the first time in its 27-year history.

The Bucs did it by exorcising its demons: the three-game losing streak against Philadelphia, the cold-weather jinx, the winless history in road playoff games. All disappeared like Barber into the end zone.

The victory sets up one of the most intriguing Super Bowl matchups in history.

Bucs coach Jon Gruden, whom the Bucs acquired from the Raiders in February for four draft picks and $8-million, against his former team and its owner, Al Davis.

The Raiders won the AFC championship Sunday 41-24 against the Titans.

"I would like to say that this is probably the greatest day in my life," Gruden said. "I'm really proud of our players and our coaches and really happy for our fans back in Tampa.

"We beat a great football team, and it's kind of like that movie, The Wizard of Oz. "Ding dong, the witch is dead!' We won a cold game again, a road playoff game, and we scored a touchdown here at the Vet. So hopefully, some of those stories will go away."

Later this afternoon, the Bucs will realize they're not in Tampa anymore.

Playing in the final NFL game at Veterans Stadium, the Bucs took a wrecking ball to the Eagles' Super Bowl plans.

The Bucs' past two seasons ended in Philadelphia with wild-card losses, including 31-9 last season, which led to the firing of coach Tony Dungy.

But Sunday, Tampa Bay erased those memories with a swarming defense that forced three turnovers and a revived offense that mounted two long touchdown drives.

Quarterback Brad Johnson, an 11-year veteran who had never advanced beyond the divisional playoff game, completed 20 of 33 passes for 259 yards and a touchdown to Keyshawn Johnson.

He did it wearing gloves for the first time in his career to combat the cold and get a better grip on the slippery ball, an idea presented to him during training camp by Gruden.

"When we first met this spring, he said, "Can any of you throw a wet ball?"' Johnson said. "Next thing I know, he's got a bucket of water out there. He's dipping the ball in the water, throwing ... with this glove. And fortunately, we didn't play in the rain this year.

"But this week, we knew coming up here we were going to be playing in the cold. And also the balls, they are brand new balls, and they're slick. I tried to throw before the game, and I couldn't throw with just my bare hands. So I played with a glove." None of Brad Johnson's throws were as important as the 71-yard completion to Joe Jurevicius during the first quarter.

The receiver spent the week in Tampa with his wife, Meagan, and their son, Michael, who was born prematurely Tuesday and has health complications. He joined the team in Philadelphia on Saturday afternoon.

Trailing 7-3 and backed up deep in their territory, Jurevicius' catch and run set up Mike Alstott's 1-yard touchdown, completing a 96-yard drive and giving the Bucs a 10-7 lead.

"I've got three boys, and I tried to put myself in that situation," Gruden said. "I tip my hat to Joe and certainly pray for his wife and family. When you have a child that's born prematurely and does not look healthy and you're concerned, it puts things in perspective. "For him to come up here Saturday afternoon, in spite of all that's happened to him and deliver clutch plays, that tells you what kind of man you're talking about."

In a way, Jurevicius symbolizes the Bucs' determination. Every time the Eagles threatened, the Bucs had an answer.

Philadelphia's Brian Mitchell returned the opening kickoff 70 yards, setting up Duce Staley's 20-yard touchdown run for a 7-0 lead 58 seconds into the game.

"Jon told us if the first three minutes don't go our way, don't worry about it," Bucs defensive tackle Warren Sapp said. "It's a long game, and we'll just get ourselves in a position to win this thing."

The Bucs did just that, answering Staley's touchdown with a 48-yard field goal by Martin Gramatica.

The Eagles tied the score at 10 on David Akers' 30-yard field goal. But the Bucs marched 80 yards for their second touchdown, a 9-yard pass on a slant route to Keyshawn Johnson.

"We had a long scoring drive to answer their score. Joe Jurevicius' big play really got us going," Gruden said. "When our defense starts feeling it, I don't care who's on the other side. They're tough."

The Bucs defense made the lead stand up. Defensive end Simeon Rice sacked McNabb, stripping the ball and taking the fumble to the Tampa Bay 31 just before halftime. Barber forced another McNabb fumble on a blitz to start the third quarter. When Gramatica added a 27-yard field goal to make it a two-score lead, you knew the defense would make it stand up.

McNabb gave the Eagles one last chance, driving to the Bucs 10, where it was first and goal. But Barber stepped in front of a pass to Antonio Freeman, and the Vet grew silent.

"To see the crowd silenced was something that I wished all the Tampa fans could've been here to see," linebacker Derrick Brooks said. "They saw it through our eyes. And to hear that crowd silenced is something I'll always remember."

The victory elicited memories for many Bucs. It was a victory other players, such as Hardy Nickerson, Paul Gruber and Warrick Dunn, weren't able to celebrate.

But it completed an improbable journey for Gruden and the Bucs.

"He came in and recognized the job Coach Dungy did and made us believe he got us so far, and it was his job to make us go the rest of the way," Brooks said.

"But we've got one more game to win."

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