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Bucs embracing a 'wild' challenge

By ROGER MILLS, JAMAL THALJI, Times wires

© St. Petersburg Times, published December 30, 2000


As offensive coordinator for the Titans, Les Steckel was part of two road wins in the playoffs last season. The Titans knocked off Indianapolis (19-16) and Jacksonville (33-14) to earn a spot in the Super Bowl.

From that and other experiences, Steckel said he's been preaching to the Bucs the need for unity.

"The one thing about playing on the road, your hometown crowd is the people in the huddle and in the locker room," Steckel said. "There's a real togetherness thing. That was the theme of that team and I think for this team, we've been through some pretty adverse times. As one player told me today on the field, "When we had to win, we won.' Well, that's a really good sign of a football team that could become champions."

Eagles coach Andy Reid has spent the week instructing his players on how to handle distractions commonly associated with hosting a playoff game. Those distractions, such as family requests and public appearances, have convinced some coaches that playing on the road is less problematic.

"It's a focal point," Steckel said. "You realize not too many people are cheering for you. Obviously, that's the deal. (We) have to hang together and after a while you realize that you're on a mission. The odds are that you can't win but the field is still 100 yards long. ... I've mentioned it to the offense. I really believe that it's sticking together.

"Personally, I'm excited about the challenge ahead of us. Granted everybody would like to play at home and have a bye and all that but I've found that the two times I've experienced being a wild-card team, you have a routine going. You maintain that routine and you maintain that edge and I found it to be very beneficial."

DIFFERENT DONOVAN: When last they saw him, the Bucs battered and bruised Eagles quarterback Donovan McNabb mercilessly. But much has changed since the second week of last season. Bucs defensive tackle Warren Sapp has noticed.

"He's a much better player in the way he prepares himself for the game," Sapp said. "I think he has more confidence in what he's doing. I think confidence will make a better player out of anybody.

"When you've got a guy who's pretty much the motor of his whole ballclub, who knows he's carrying the whole load on his shoulders, that's a daunting task sometimes. Unless you know exactly what you're doing, and he does. He's playing much better."

How much better? McNabb, who passed for 3,365 yards and 21 touchdowns and leads the team with 629 yards rushing, finished second to Rams running back Marshall Faulk in the MVP voting.

"I think the leadership qualities have always been there," McNabb said. "But the fact that we have been able to jell in this offense as a unit definitely took a lot of pressure not only off myself but off of everyone on the team. ... That makes my job a lot easier."

Asked how the Bucs plan to deal with McNabb, Sapp was frank: "We're going to come out and rush the hell out of him."

REMEMBER OTHER RUNNERS: While McNabb has become the main rushing threat since the early season-ending injury to Duce Staley, the Bucs aren't forgetting to do their homework on the other running back on Philadelphia's roster.

"Darnell Autry and Chris Warren are two excellent running backs and that's the first thing we do when we go out there to play, is to eliminate the running game," Sapp said. "If we do that, they'll have to rely on McNabb. I like our chances."

LOVE THAT TURF: The turf at Veterans Stadium is feared by most players, but don't count linebacker Al Singleton among those complaining about the surface in Philadelphia.

"I don't know why Veterans Stadium gets such a bad rap," said Singleton, who played there at Temple. "It's a good turf. I guess coming out of high school and playing on a mud field, anything's a step up."

Singleton said when the Bucs played at Philadelphia last season, teammates were asking about the turf as if it were a minefield.

"The guys were asking me, "What's going on with this field? Where should you run?' and I let them know that some places you jump and it shakes a little," he said.

Singleton said his finest moment at the Vet was getting Temple's first Big East victory in 1996. He was quick to point out that the win came against Pittsburgh, the alma mater of Bucs tight end Dave Moore.

AWAY FROM HOME: The Bucs' 4-4 road record matches the worst of any playoff team, and the team is winless in four playoff games on the road, so lessening the impact of the crowd with a strong start is a must.

"We have to come out there and put some points on the board on the first drive," fullback Mike Alstott said. "We have to put some drives together in the first half, do some positive things to take the crowd out."

Coach Tony Dungy said a priority in any road game is establishing the run and the Bucs' tempo for the game.

"I think it's always important that we not make the big mistakes early, not give them the momentum plays," he said. "If we can avoid that and get through the first quarter okay, I think we'll be fine."

And if the Bucs don't get an early lead, they still believe they can handle the adverse conditions, according to defensive lineman Marcus Jones.

"If we don't get off to a good start, we're not going to lay down and just let them beat on us," said Jones, one of four Bucs declared inactive Friday. "They've got a great crowd that gets after you, but we've been in hostile situations before."

FAMILIAR FACE: The Bucs go up against Warren for the second time in a month, having seen him help them to victory against the Cowboys on Dec. 3.

Warren dropped two passes, the latter of which ricocheted into the arms of Brian Kelly, who returned it for a touchdown in the Bucs' 27-7 win. Warren was benched and released two days later, and the Eagles picked him up off waivers to help a running game that has been inconsistent since Staley was lost for the season. Warren was the Eagles' leading rusher in a 16-7 victory against Cincinnati on Sunday, rushing 15 times for 42 yards, but he also lost two fumbles in the second half (one on the Cincinnati 5) as the Eagles tried to close out the win.

"You don't really prepare for individual backs; you prepare for what they do," Dungy said. "Whether it's Duce Staley or Darnell Autry or Chris Warren, they're going to run the same plays and we've got to be ready to stop them. They're all capable backs."

ON THE TUBE: The Eagles beat a Friday deadline, with help from Fox, ensuring that fans in the Philadelphia market can watch the telecast Sunday.

The team had until 4 p.m. Friday to sell 65,358 tickets. The Eagles had 1,500 tickets remaining Friday and Fox Philadelphia agreed to buy them if they are not sold by game time.

The NFL said it accepted the guarantee as a sellout.

The Saints also beat their deadline for their game against the Rams, but the Dolphins-Colts game will not be seen in south Florida.

The last NFL playoff game to be blacked out was Green Bay at Detroit in 1993. The only other playoff game blacked out in the past 16 years was in 1992 between Houston and Buffalo.

WELCOME ABOARD: Philadelphia has gone from 3-13 in 1998 to 5-11, then 11-5. All but five of the Eagles on the active roster have been acquired or retained since football operations director Tom Modrak and pro scouting director Mike McCartney came aboard.

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