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SAN DIEGO -- Still red-eyed and sleep-deprived after winning the NFC championship, they arrived Monday at Super Bowl XXXVII after a cross-country flight.
How fitting. For the Bucs, the journey has taken longer than most.
Tampa Bay makes its first appearance in the NFL title game in the franchise's 27 years, and Bucs players said they want to make it count in Sunday's game against the Raiders.
"I think we're excited," Keyshawn Johnson said. "But we got to the Super Bowl. That point is over now. We need to get the ring. Getting to the Super Bowl is one hurdle. It's another hurdle to win it. That's what we're trying to do.
"For me, nothing is bigger. I think the only other thing I've enjoyed more than going to a Super Bowl is having my two kids. This is the biggest thing that's ever happened to me. Because what I've done throughout my whole career was try to get to this point, and I've arrived at this point now. For me it's just a matter of finishing the business, in terms of winning the Super Bowl. I want the ring and to top my career with that."
Not only must the Bucs deal with the Raiders, they must handle the distractions. To that end, coach Jon Gruden has given his team a midnight curfew starting today.
"I think the way our schedule is, we're not approaching it like it's a free-for-all, fun game," Johnson said. "We've got curfews starting on Tuesday. When I looked at the schedule I was like, "Wait a minute.' But we know what they're for."
Bucs general manager Rich McKay noted the Raiders have not been to the Super Bowl since beating the Redskins in Tampa in 1984. But many of their high profile players, such as like Jerry Rice and Bill Romanowski, have lots of experience in the big game.
"You know, the good thing is the Raiders haven't been there in (19) years either," McKay said. "They've got a bunch of players who have done it, but it's exceptional in the demands placed upon them. We've just got to do a good job of managing them, and I think the positive is, we were in the NFC Championship Game in '99, we've been in the playoffs the last four years in a row. We know what the extra hype is about. So I don't think our guys will be intimidated by it. I just hope they're not overrun with it. ... "I think part of that is reflective by just the way (the Bucs) played the game. They weren't intimidated. Brian Mitchell makes a big return and (the Eagles) score two plays later, but it didn't change anybody's approach. And I think that's where we are now. We're a mature team now, guys hung in there." There is one distraction the Bucs can't escape: Jon Gruden versus his former team. The Raiders traded Gruden's rights to the Bucs for four draft picks and $8-million. And coach Bill Callahan, whom Gruden hired at Oakland, did what Gruden couldn't do in four seasons by leading the Raiders back to the Super Bowl.
"You treat it just like elevator music," McKay said. "You let it become a sideshow, which it will to a certain extent. But put no credence in it, because it'll just be talk. In some instances, just to see if they can raise the level a little bit. But it'll be a game still played by the players on Sunday, and I think our guys will not have a problem with it. And I don't think the Raiders will either. They're a veteran team. They'll talk about it on media day, but I don't think it'll bother us."
Johnson said the Bucs won't engage the Raiders in a debate about Gruden.
"It's going to be ridiculous," he said. "Back and forth. Let them handle that. I'm not going to get involved with it. As long as they don't say anything to me, I don't care. Just keep me out of it."
Bucs cornerback Ronde Barber, whose 92-yard interception return sealed the 27-10 win at Philadelphia on Sunday, said he wasn't sure what to expect from the super hoopla. Barber said he didn't pick up any pointers from his twin brother, Tiki, when the Giants running back competed in Super Bowl XXXV in Tampa.
"He was (in Tampa) and he was dealing (with it) in my back yard," Barber said. "This is a totally foreign element that I'm going to, and I don't have anybody to hold my hand and it'll be interesting the way this thing works out.
"This will probably be the longest week of our lives, no doubt about it. But that's just playoffs. I don't know how many guys have felt this, because I don't know how many won national championships in college. It'll be a long week, but it'll be fun. I think we match up well. They're a heck of an organization over there. They're traditionally one of the best, and we're traditionally one of the worst. But this is 2002-2003, and I think we match up well."
McKay was asked if he thought the Bucs were a team of destiny since they have made it to the Super Bowl. "Destiny is good for the articles, but I don't know if it means much," he said. "We've got to play on Sunday, and the Raiders have got a lot of guys who have been here and done it. They'll try to take advantage of that. It'll be a very tough atmosphere for our guys all week. ... We're going to have to handle it and play on Sunday."
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