WHERE: Veterans Stadium in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.
SPREAD: Eagles by 4
WHERE THE EAGLES STAND: Philadelphia finished the regular season with a 12-4 record and they won the NFC East Division.
EAGLES HEAD COACH: Andy Reid
EAGLES OFFENSIVE COORINATOR: Brad Childress
EAGLES DEFENSIVE COORDINATOR: Jim Johnson
EAGLES SPECIAL TEAMS COACH: John Harbaugh
HOW THE BUCS RANK IN THE NFL (2002):
OFFENSE: OVERALL: 24th RUSHING: 27th PASSING: 15th
DEFENSE: OVERALL: 1st RUSHING: 5th (T) PASSING: 1st
HOW THE EAGLES RANK IN THE NFL (2002):
OFFENSE: OVERALL: 10th RUSHING: 7th PASSING: 19th
DEFENSE: OVERALL: 4th RUSHING: 9th PASSING: 7th
MATCHUP TO WATCH Bucs LB Derrick Brooks vs. Eagles RB Duce Staley: Yes, Tampa Bay has not fared particularly well in its last three trips to Veterans Stadium, but the Bucs' defense, which is the best in the league, had a solid outing against the Eagles in Week 7.
But late in the fourth quarter, Tampa Bay's defense let its guard down and Philadelphia's ground attack took advantage. Eagles running back Duce Staley rushed for 1,029 yards (3.8 avg.) and scored five touchdowns during the regular season. While those numbers might not jump out at you, Staley is one of the best fourth quarter running backs in the league. Eagles head coach Andy Reid and Co. can count on Staley to pick up first downs late in the game and that's exactly what he did to the Bucs.
Staley rushed for 152 yards on 24 carries (6.3 avg.), including a 57-yarder late in the fourth quarter. Tampa Bay Pro Bowl weakside linebacker Derrick Brooks was all over the field against San Francisco last Sunday and he'll need to help the Bucs' defense stop the Eagles' running game this Sunday. Tampa Bay must make Philadelphia one-dimensional in order to limit their play-action passing. Brooks is a big-time player and the Bucs will need a big-time performance from the NFC Defensive Player of the Year on Sunday.
DID YOU KNOW…
…Tampa Bay is 0-6 all-time in road playoff games?
HOUSE OF HORRORS:
Veterans Stadium hasn't been kind to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. The Pewter Pirates' last two seasons have ended there and they've lost three consecutive contests to the Eagles over the last three seasons.
Philadelphia has posted an 8-1 record at home this season, including one playoff win against Atlanta last Saturday. There are reasons why Veterans Stadium is so tough to play in. The Eagles have one of the loudest crowds in the league and the playing surface at Veterans Stadium is awful in terms of footing, especially when it's frozen.
But there is good news. Tampa Bay has posted a franchise-best 6-2 record in games on the road this season. The Bucs played on a similar surface in its regular season finale against Chicago in Champaign, Illinois. This might bode well for them come Sunday.
BUCS' OFFENSE HAS BEEN WOEFUL IN PHILLY:
Not that you needed another disturbing stat, but here's an interesting one. Tampa Bay hasn't scored an offensive touchdown in its last three contests in Philadelphia. That's no fluke. It's simply a testament to how good Philadelphia's No. 2 ranked defense matches up against Tampa Bay's offense.
Eagles defensive coordinator Jim Johnson is known to throw a variety of blitz packages at offenses, which is why they notched 56 sacks during the regular season. The Bucs are all too familiar with the Eagles' defensive scheme. Philadelphia's defense, which is quite a physical group, recorded six sacks against Tampa Bay back in Week 7. Bucs quarterback Brad Johnson didn't have any time to throw in that game, but his offensive line, which hasn't done well against these types of defensive lines in the past, has come a long way sine then.
So, what can Bucs head coach Jon Gruden do to move the chains against the Eagles' blitz-happy defense? Gruden needs to slow the blitz by calling screen-plays, but Tampa Bay hasn't been a good screen offense because they don't have the personnel to block up the field. Still, the Bucs need to give the Eagles' defense a heavy dose of screen-plays to running backs Michael Pittman (59 receptions for 477 yards) and Mike Alstott (35 receptions for 242 yards).
Tampa Bay must get on the scoreboard quickly Sunday and a touchdown would be much better than a field goal. In 1999, the Bucs learned the hard way that field goals alone are not enough to win a NFC Championship Game.
KEEP QB McNABB CONTAINED:
Eagles quarterback Donovan McNabb didn't show any lingering affects of the fractured foot he suffered midway through the season against the Falcons last Saturday night.
Tampa Bay's defense held McNabb in check in Week 7 and they'll need to do the same this time around. McNabb, who completed 58 percent of his passes for 2,289 yards and tossed 17 touchdowns and just six interceptions during the regular season, was only able to complete 50 percent of his passes for 127 yards against the Bucs' defense in Week 7. Philadelphia's mobile quarterback was also contained, rushing six times for just four yards.
When McNabb, who rushed 63 times for 460 yards (7.3 avg.) during the regular season, does take off with the football, Tampa Bay must tackle him immediately. He's not easy to bring down, but the foot injury could keep him from running as much as he used to.
Tampa Bay's defense recorded two sacks on McNabb in Week 7 and the Bucs' front four must rattle McNabb early and often this Sunday.
BUCS MUST ESTABLISH RUNNING ATTACK:
Another way to make Philadelphia's defense pay for blitzing is by establishing the running game, which is something the Bucs haven't had much success doing in Philadelphia.
Eagles right defensive end Hugh Douglas and defensive tackles Corey Simon and Darwin Walker will make it difficult for the Bucs to establish the run, but the Eagles surrendered an average of 103.8 yards rushing per game during the regular season. Philly linebackers Levon Kirkland, Carlos Emmons and Shawn Barber also make it tough to run.
In Week 7, Tampa Bay RB Michael Pittman carried the ball 12 times for 49 yards (4.1 avg.). Bucs FB Mike Alstott rushed five times for 14 yards (2.8 avg.). Tampa Bay's offense thrives off of play-action and if the Bucs don't have a legitimate running attack going, Philadelphia won't bite on the play-action pass attempts.
BUCS MUST WIN THE TURNOVER BATTLE:
The Bucs had the best turnover ratio in the league (plus-17) and the Eagles have the fourth-best turnover ratio (plus-14).
Tampa Bay can't afford to turn the ball over in Philadelphia, but that's something they've done in their last three trips to Veterans Stadium.
The Bucs' offense turned the ball over twice in Week 7, but it could have been a lot worse. The Bucs fumbled the ball four times against the Eagles last October, but they only lost one of them. Bucs QB Brad Johnson also threw an interception.
The Eagles were also careless with the football in its last game against the Bucs. Philly fumbled three times, but only lost one of them. Eagles QB Donovan McNabb also threw an interception.
Not only do the Bucs need to win the turnover battle on Sunday, but its offense needs to turn the Eagles' turnovers into points.
BUCS SOUND OFF:
Bucs head coach Jon Gruden on if the Eagles blitz as much as people say they do:
"They're capable of it. You'll see games where it's back-to-back-to-back-to-back-to-back blitzes, and they're different blitzes. There are other games that they play more of a conventional style of defense. I think it just depends on the mood of Jim Johnson. But you've got to deal with pressure and at the same time you've got to apply pressure offensively. You can't just stick your head in the sand and say, 'Come and get it.' You've got to be able to pick up the blitzes or you can't compete in this game."
Bucs DE Simeon Rice on the road to the Super Bowl going through the Vet:
"I think it is appropriate to go into the Vet, where we lost twice, where we lost our last playoff game and go in there and turn the page we need to. We need to play with energy and enthusiasm to show the world what a Super Bowl champion is all about. This is something you have to want. Let the games begin on Sunday."
Gruden on if he thinks certain teams can get into another team's heads:
"I don't know. I think a lot of that is overrated a little bit. I mean, this game changes on a weekly basis. If we sit around and are real deep, philosophical people, maybe you can let it get to you. But if you stay shallow and zoom in on the immediate future, we're both undefeated in the 2002 postseason. That's how I look at it. What happened last year and 18 years ago is totally irrelevant. We're 0-21 in cold-weather games as pointed out, we win a game and now everyone says we're 1-21. Well, hell, we're 1-0 as far as I know and that's how we're looking at it with this team. We're trying to look at it optimistically as opposed to negatively."
Bucs QB Brad Johnson on the Eagles' defense:
"Well, they're a team that that has done it year in and year out. They are a team that has stopped a lot of people and they dominate a lot of people. They have made a lot of people look really bad, and the thing about it is, they have scored a lot of points on defense. They have done a lot of damage to a lot of different people. But we feel good about how much we have improved and we know going into the game we have our work cut out for us. They have done some great things against a lot of different people this year, not just one quarterback or one team. Those guys have been playing together for six or seven years. It's one of the things that makes our defense so good too. They know each other. They know their tendencies, they know the weaknesses and they have guys who can make plays. Jim Johnson has them playing unbelievable this year, like always. "
Can Tampa Bay pull off the upset Sunday by stunning Philadelphia in what will be the last game ever played at Veterans Stadium? Well, the Bucs realize the road to Super Bowl XXXVII in San Diego goes through Philadelphia, so they're going to need to end their three-game losing streak in Philly if they want to advance to the Super Bowl.
Tampa Bay's defensive front four must get pressure on Philly QB Donovan McNabb if they're going to stand a chance of winning this contest. The Bucs sacked McNabb twice in Week 7, but Philly's offensive line matches up well against Tampa Bay's defensive line in terms of size and power. Bucs under tackle Warren Sapp has traditionally not shown up in playoff games in the past, but the Pewter Pirates are going to need him to be a disruptive player in the trenches on Sunday.
A lot of the damage Philadelphia's offense causes is via the passing game, where wide receivers James Thrash (52 catches for 635 yards and six TDs) and Todd Pinkston (60 receptions for 798 yards and seven TDs) make a living on getting yards after the catch. Tampa Bay's defense is ranked No. 1 against the pass, though, and they did a fairly good job of containing both of those receivers in Week 7. The Bucs' defense will also have to beware of RB Duce Staley as a receiver out of the backfield. He caught 51 passes for 541 yards during the regular season. Philadelphia tight end Chad Lewis is also a dangerous receiver. He caught 42 passes for 398 yards and scored three touchdowns during the regular season, but Lewis didn't catch a pass against Tampa Bay in their last meeting.
This game will be won or lost in the trenches, which is why so many people believe Philadelphia will win. Both the Eagles' offensive and defensive lines matchup well against Tampa Bay's offensive and defensive lines. Philly has size on both of those units, which is something Tampa Bay is lacking.
Philadelphia will blitz often, which means Bucs QB Brad Johnson must get rid of the ball quickly. You might see an awful lot of fade patterns and quick slants in this game and maybe even some screen-passes, too. When they blitz, the Eagles the Bucs receivers will receive some one-on-one matchups in man coverage.
If Tampa Bay can win the turnover battle, establish some sort of a running game and protect QB Brad Johnson, they'll stand a chance of winning this game. The Bucs' defense has been known to throw in the towel when it falls behind early, which means the Pewter Pirates must score and/or keep the game close in the first half.
Philadelphia is arguably the most balanced team in the league. Practically no one believes the Bucs can beat the Eagles in Philadelphia, especially in a game of this magnitude. Can Tampa Bay shock the world? They're certainly going to try, but I don't know that they'll succeed on Sunday.
FLYNN'S PICK Eagles 17 Buccaneers 13
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