But what a big step it is.
After dismantling the San Francisco 49ers 31-6 in an NFC Divisional playoff game at Raymond James Stadium on Sunday, the Buccaneers will re-visit their house of horrors -- Veterans Stadium -- to face the Philadelphia Eagles in a playoff rematch. Tampa Bay has lost their last three games in Philadelphia, including Wild Card playoff games in 2000 and 2001, and a 20-10 contest in Week 7 this year.
If the Bucs (13-4) climb that step and finally beat the Eagles (13-4), they'll set sail for San Diego and Super XXXVII on January 26th at Qualcomm Stadium. The last four games with Philadelphia, with two of them being playoff tilts, have gone to the Birds. After the Bucs beat the Birds 19-5 at the Vet in Week 2 of the 1999 season, the Eagles have owned the Buccaneers.
The Pewter Pirates will be fighting not only the Eagles, but also a whole lot of history next week. Tampa Bay is 0-2 in NFC Championship games, losing 9-0 to the Los Angeles Rams in 1979, and 20 years later, to the St. Louis Rams by a score of 11-6. The Bucs have also not scored a touchdown in their two NFC Championship game appearances and that has to change next week in Philly, a place where the Tampa Bay offense has struggled and settled for field goals in the three previous losses.
The Eagles believe they have the Bucs' number and the Pewter Pirates are going to have to play almost a mistake-free game like they played at the Ray-Jay in steamrollering the 49ers.
The Bucs had a very inauspicious start to Sunday's NFC Divisional playoff game. Tampa Bay got their initial first down when quarterback Brad Johnson hit wide receiver Joe Jurevicius for 15 yards on a third-and-10 from the Buccaneers' 30-yard line. On the next third down, from their own 46, Johnson tried to squeeze one in to receiver Keyshawn Johnson, who was running a hard slant against man coverage. Cornerback Rashad Holman jumped the route, got the interception, and took the ball back 15 yards to the Bucs' 40.
Tampa Bay dodged a bullet when their defense showed why they are the top-ranked squad in the National Football League. The Bucs forced a punting situation after a a three-and-out when quarterback Jeff Garcia was sacked as he tripped coming out from under center. He was touched down by linebacker Derrick Brooks and defensive tackle Warren Sapp for a sack. Punter Bill LeFleur pooched the ball 14 yards and the Bucs started their second drive on their own 26-yard line.
The Bucs then proceeded to drive the ball the length of the field and opened the scoring at 6:34 of the opening period. Running back Mike Alstott burrowed into the end zone from two yards out behind great blocking by pulling guard Kerry Jenkins. The run culminated a 74-yard drive that consumed 5:15 of clock time in 12 plays.
The Bucs converted four straight third downs with Johnson hitting Jurevicius for 13 yards and Johnson for 17 yards sandwiched around a pass interference penalty on linebacker Julian Peterson before the A-Train scored his club-record fourth playoff rushing touchdown and the Buccaneers were on the board with an early 7-0 lead.
The 49ers answered that score with a 6:17 drive of their own, and scored with 17 seconds left in the first quarter. San Francisco moved 63 yards in 12 plays, but could not navigate the last four yards into the Tampa Bay end zone. The 49ers went 30 yards when Garcia hit receiver Tai Streets coming off a short crossing route on third-and-4 from the Bucs' 34-yard line. Streets rolled toward the left sideline where Ronde Barber shoved him out of bounds saving a touchdown. Two incomplete passes and a 2-yard loss by running back Kevin Barlow and the Niners were forced to settle for a 24 yard field goal by kicker Jeff Chandler that cut the lead to 7-3.
The goalline stand could have been the series of the game because it kept San Francisco from tying the score right after the Bucs jumped out to a seven-point lead. The importance that the Bucs only gave up three points instead of touchdown was not lost on head coach Jon Gruden.
"It's always important," Gruden said. "You don't want to give up touchdowns in the red zone when you're on defense and you want to score them when you're on offense. That's a big play by our defense and that's what we expect from them. We have a lot of guys on defense that can run and that's one of the big criteria that we look for when we bring in college players or free agents. We want guys who can run."
The Bucs were able to answer that score with one of their own on their next series. Tampa Bay methodically went 77 yards in 11 plays over the course of 5:50 to increase their lead to 14-3. This time Johnson hooked up with Jurevicius in the left corner of the end zone after he ran a beautiful post-corner route and made a fingertip catch.
With the touchdown, the Bucs accomplished two things. First, they took momentum back to their side of the field. Second, the Bucs topped the San Francisco field goal with a touchdown of their own.
"That was big," Gruden said. "Man, everybody knows that's big. That was just huge."
The 49ers were only able to cut the lead to 14-6 on their next possession. Another field goal, this one from 40 yards out with 8:31 remaining in the second stanza, was the last points that San Francisco would score.
The Bucs again matched the Frisco three with seven of their own. This one was when Johnson, scrambling to his left, found tight end Ricky Dudley just over the goal line to stretch the Buccaneers' lead to 21-6.
The Bucs made it 28-6 with 50 seconds left in the first half with another 2-yard run by Alstott. This was set up by an interception by Brooks of a pass intended for Streets. The ball popped to the Pro Bowl linebacker when Barber stripped the 49ers wide receiver of the pigskin.
The only scoring in the second half was a 19-yard Gramatica field goal midway through the third quarter to push the Bucs lead to 31-6. This drive started when wide receiver Terrell Owens, who was a non-factor with four catches for 35 yards, had a pass go off his pads into the waiting arms of cornerback Dwight Smith giving the Bucs a short field situation at the 49ers' 37-yard line. Tampa Bay capitalized on the turnover and closed out the scoring with 8:28 left in the third period.
Gruden was happy with the effort and the outcome. Whether his team is hitting its peak is the big question heading into Philly.
"I have no idea," Gruden said. "We played a great game today. I don't know what the hell peaking is."
The Bucs know they will have to score touchdowns in Philadelphia and have another great defensive effort to beat the Eagles and advance to the Super Bowl.
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