Will This Trip To Philly Be Different?

January 13 – Not many people are giving Tampa Bay much of a chance of defeating Philadelphia Sunday. Of course, that shouldn't come as a surprise. After all, the Bucs have lost three straight contests in Philadelphia over the last three years by a combined score of 72-22. Despite those disturbing facts, Tampa Bay feels it will bring a different team to Philadelphia this time around and they're hoping it will produce a much different result.

Veterans Stadium hasn't been the kindest of places to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Then again, the Philadelphia Eagles haven't exactly been kind to the Buccaneers either.

The Eagles have defeated the Bucs four consecutive times over the last three seasons, and three of those contests were played in Philly.

Winning on the road in the playoffs isn't an easy task for any team, but it's been especially difficult for the Bucs, who have posted an 0-6 record away from Tampa in the post-season, including two playoff contests in Philadelphia (2001, 2002).

So, what's gone wrong for Tampa Bay in Philly?

"It's just been bad things," said Bucs Pro Bowl strong safety John Lynch. "They've gotten leads early or we've allowed them to create their pressure and put it on us. They kind of thrive on that emotion they feed off the crowd with. When you put yourself in that situation, it's a tough place to play. As I mentioned yesterday, in retrospect, looking back at some of those games it makes you feel like you were out of it and that place can make you do that. Hopefully the experience of being there before and knowing what that kind of atmosphere and environment will get you into will make it more comfortable for us."

Still, the fact that Tampa Bay will play Philadelphia in what will be the last game ever played in Veterans Stadium on Sunday for the right to go to the Super Bowl doesn't particularly bode well for the Pewter Pirates, right?

"I think it's the best two teams in the NFC playing," Bucs head coach Jon Gruden said when asked about Tampa Bay's previous encounters with Philadelphia. "That' s the way I look at it. We're both 13-4, and No. 1 seed and No. 2 seed. I'm not going to get into the Bucs beating the Eagles or the Eagles beating the Bucs in the years past. We realize we have not had success in Veteran Stadium recently. That includes this season. We have a tall order in front of us, but whether it's fitting or not, I just think it's the best two teams in the NFC going head to head."

In Tampa Bay's last three trips to the Vet, they've been outscored 72-22, and the Buccaneers' offense failed to score a touchdown in each of those games.

But lack of points scored in the playoffs was the reason why the Bucs brought Gruden to Tampa, wasn't it? The Bucs certainly delivered points in their first playoff contest under Gruden against the 49ers last Sunday, where the Pewter Pirates put up 31 of them en route to a decisive victory. That point total set a franchise record for most points scored in a playoff game.

Gruden's Bucs visited Philadelphia back in Week 7 and his offense didn't score a touchdown. The Eagles downed the Bucs in that contest, 20-10. But the offensive players feel they've come a long way since their last game against the Eagles, which was played on October 20, 2002.

"I feel we are bringing a balanced attack," Bucs fullback Mike Alstott said. "I feel in the past five or six weeks, the running game has been showing improvements. We have been going over the 100-yard mark, as far as total rushing, with the three of us. So it is really impressive to see that and it has caught some defenses off guard a little bit. The play-actions are working really well right now. When you can do that and not be one dimensional, you are going to be able to see the display we can put on. We are going to put some points on the board. Field position was a key yesterday against San Francisco. I think we were backed up once. But when we were in the red zone we converted seven points, rather than three points, and that was huge."

Philadelphia, who is 8-1 at home this season, has one of the loudest home crowds in the league, which can make for a pretty intimidating atmosphere for the visiting team. Although Tampa Bay has never won a playoff game on the road, they did produce a franchise-best 6-2 record on the road this season, including a win over the Chicago Bears in Champaign, Illinois, which snapped the Bucs' 21-game losing streak in games played in temperatures below 40 degrees. The temperature at kickoff this Sunday is supposed to be about 30 degrees.

So, it would probably be fair to say the odds are stacked high against the Bucs. Not many people are giving Tampa Bay a shot of pulling off the upset in Philadelphia, but that doesn't mean the Buccaneers are going to throw in the towel before the NFC Championship Game is even played.

"Philadelphia is in America, now, we're not going across the world," Gruden said. "We're going to try to convey that to our team. We have not played well. We have been beaten decisively by an excellent football team in previous engagements. We're going to play this game. We're getting on a plane. We're 13-4. We're coming off a great victory, and by George, we're going to do everything we can to win. It's only a two hour and twelve minute flight, and we're going."

This will be just Tampa Bay's third trip to the NFC Championship Game. The Bucs, of course, did not win its previous two contests. The last time the Bucs played in the NFC Championship Game was back in 1999 when St. Louis defeated Tampa Bay, 11-6, to advance to -- and eventually win -- Super Bowl XXXIV.

Tampa Bay knows how hard it is to get back to where they are now and with the Buccaneers facing a bit of a cap crunch next season, they know they must take advantage of the opportunity of being just one game away from the Super Bowl.

"If you are not ready for this game you shouldn't even come on Wednesday," Alstott said. "The players are here from 1999 and the disappointment after that game with all the hard work, you have to look back on that. The offseason, training camp, and just how the whole season went on and then you get to the game before the Big Dance, it's an important game. Everyone has to be ready, everyone has to be on the same page and everyone has to be pay attention to the details of their game and be accountable for their actions on the field. Personally, I've been to the NFC Championship Game once, (Jeff) Christy has been there twice, and we haven't had anyone in the whole organization to go to the Super Bowl. So this is going to be a key week for us.

"Nothing is guaranteed in this business. When it's here you need to make the most of it. I believe with the veteran leadership on this ball club, along with the coaching staff and talent we have, we will. I'm not guaranteeing anything, other than this ball club is going to go out there and play hard for sixty minutes and give everything we have."

While some of the Tampa Bay players choose to draw from some of their past playoff experiences as a motivating factor for Sunday's game against Philadelphia, Gruden, who coached the Oakland Raiders to the AFC Championship Game before falling to Baltimore the week before Super Bowl XXXV, suggested he'd do just the opposite.

"Not very much," Gruden said of what he'd take away from the Raiders' loss to the Ravens three seasons ago. "It was a negative experience so we're going to try to not draw from any of our pasts really. This is the most exciting time of our lives as football players. We're going to live in our hopes, not in our fears, and live in the immediate future, not in our past."

The Buccaneers will fly up to Philadelphia on Friday, which is one day earlier than a normal away game. The team scheduled an early departure so they can address the media in press conferences in Philadelphia and have at least one walk through and/or practice in Veterans Stadium.

"The only change is I believe we're going to leave on a Friday as opposed to a Saturday," Gruden said. "I believe there are some arrangements the league requires. For that reason we will leave Friday right after our practice. We'll be up there Friday, then at some point on Saturday we will go into Veteran Stadium and get acclimated to the field and get acclimated to the weather to some degree. We're coming off a cold weather game on the same surface in Week 16 in (Champaign), so that will help us hopefully."

So, why do the Bucs feel they have a chance of winning Sunday? Well, simply put, the Pewter Pirates feel they will bring the best team they've ever had into Philadelphia to play the Eagles.

"I think we're a better team," Lynch said when asked what the difference was in the Bucs now vs. the Bucs team that lost to the Eagles in Week 7. "I think we clearly are a better team. We've set a franchise record for wins, and we've done a lot of things this year that we've never done before. The bottom line is that we're just a better football team. I realize we went up there earlier this year and fell short, but I'll guarantee you we'll go up there with a confidence boost because we know we're going to have to go up there and play exceptionally well in all three phases."

And as far as Tampa Bay's recent history in Philadelphia is concerned, the bottom line is none of it will matter when the Buccaneers and Eagles clash at 3:00 p.m. ET on Sunday in the NFC Championship Game. The winner will play in Super Bowl XXXVII in San Diego, California, and the loser will go home.

"It doesn't matter," Brooks said of Tampa Bay's recent losses to Philadelphia. "None of that matters now. Some people may look at the past and try to make some significance. But none of that matters. If we win on Sunday, that erases anything that has happened. We just can't go up there and shoot ourselves in the foot. We have been a play or two away every time we have played and we know that. And that's what gives us some small confidence. At the same time, you have to give them credit too for making plays when the game is on the line. They have come up with the plays to beat us, but all of that is in the past. It's a new day. (It is) two different teams. It is a different team that went there last year and it's a different team that was there earlier in the season. They have a different team that we faced and I think every player recognizes that."

While few people are giving the Bucs a shot to defeat the Eagles Sunday, those same people are the ones that didn't give the Buccaneers a chance of defeating the Rams back in '99. Although the Bucs lost that contest, they put themselves in position to win the game. And with the odds stacked against them, Gruden knows his team can erase its woeful past against the Eagles by pulling off the upset Sunday.

One thing is for sure – the Bucs will certainly give it their best shot.

"When you have yourselves beaten decisively at the same site three years in a row, I don't know if it's three or four, you're going to have to answer some questions for how are you going to do better this year," Gruden said. "We're going to try to address those questions the best we can. We're going to go. We're going to get on the plane, and we're going to go to Philadelphia one more time. I saw Barry Bonds. I sat in the stands in PacBell Park and watched him strike out three times. He didn't duck in the ninth inning, now. He went up there, he took his cuts in the ninth inning, and I've seen him deliver. That's kind of how I look at this situation. You either ask for a pinch-hitter or you take your cuts. That's what we have to do, we have to go take our swings."


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