Well, I've made my prediction and I've understandably heard about on sports talk radio and on the PewterReport.com message boards. I think the Eagles will win a close, close ballgame due to two reasons. First, I think the biggest mismatch of the game -- Philadelphia's defensive front vs. Tampa Bay's offensive line -- favors the Eagles. Second, I think the homefield advantage the Eagles have is huge. Not the mystique of Veterans Stadium or the turf or the cold. It's the energy from playing in front of your home crowd. If this game is in Tampa, I'd pick the Bucs.
I've analyzed this game about as much as I can in previous articles on PewterReport.com, so I won't be redundant here by getting into all the matchups. But I think the Bucs can pull this off if they can get an early offensive touchdown. That's been the barrier at the Vet. An offensive touchdown would deal a psychological blow to Philly's defense, give the Bucs offense confidence and energize Tampa Bay's defense. All of the pressure would then shift to Philadelphia and stun their crowd. If Tampa Bay can jump out to a big lead, the Philly fans will turn on their own team, but that's a tall order.
From talking to the players all week, this is a very, very confident Bucs team. The problem is the Eagles are just as confident. I think Jon Gruden has done a masterful job of defiantly shooting down any possible distractions -- the weather, the Philly fans, the playing surface and the recent 0-4 mark against the Eagles -- and his team has a lot of bravado right now. Here's a sampling from some players I talked to this week:
"If I was playing for Philly I would be feeling like they are, very confident," said Bucs defensive end Greg Spires. "A lot of people are saying that Tampa hasn't won there with the cold weather. But there's nobody out there that thinks we'll win except for the people in this building. That's how I feel. We're not going up there expecting to lose."
"We're in sync now," said Bucs receiver Keyshawn Johnson. "That was a long time ago. We were still trying to find our way at that point. Now when we watch the film, we say, 'Oh, we could have done that' if we would have known that at the time."
"Do they respect us? They have to...of course they do," said Tampa Bay cornerback Dwight Smith. "This team has too many guys who have done too much in this league not to respect us. Do they fear us? No. Not whatsoever. They came down here and beat us last year and they beat us twice up there. They don't fear us. All we can do is go in with our dukes up and fight."
I think the Eagles game is the biggest hurdle for the Bucs. If they can make it to the Super Bowl, I'm picking them to win it all. The Bucs could easily handle Tennessee and Jon Gruden certainly knows the weaknesses of the Oakland Raiders. How cool would it be to see the Bucs beat the Raiders in San Diego?
That pretty much sums up this game. Expect one helluva fight come 3:00 p.m. Sunday.
LEO HAGGERTY – Pewter Report Managing Editor:
"You know, the experts can give you 17 different reasons why the Eagles are going to win the National Football Conference game on Sunday. It's the last game at the Vet. The weather will be miserable. The temperature will be around 28 degrees and dropping. The Eagles fans are the most intimidating in the NFC if not the entire league and the list goes on. I only need one reason why the Bucs are going to emerge victorious and bring the conference title banner back to Tampa. The Pewter Pirates defense forces Philly into four turnovers and Tampa Bay wins 19-13 in overtime."
"The Bucs stars have to play like it this weekend. Defensive tackle Warren Sapp along with linebacker Derrick Brooks and strong safety John Lynch need to have Hall of Fame performances if the Buccaneers are to move on to Super Bowl XXXVII. Number 99 cannot come up sackless and No. 47 cannot come up hitless plus No. 55 cannot come up interceptionless. Yeah, I know that these aren't words that you can find in Webster's Dictionary but you get my drift. Big players show up in big games and this trio must be huge."
"This can only happen to me. I'm a life long Eagle fan and, when they finally have a chance to go to the Super Bowl, they are going against my adopted team. I came to Tampa in 1987 and threw my allegiance behind the Buccaneers. I suffered through the last years of the Culverhouse regime and had my heart broken, like it was in Philadelphia, when the Pewter Pirates came so close to go to the Big Dance in 1999. As you can see it's not real easy for me to figure out whom I want to win but I'll give you a clue. B-U-C-S and that's without hesitation or reservation."
JIM FLYNN – Pewter Report Assistant Editor:
"I think the Tampa Bay Buccaneers can win the NFC Championship Game against the Philadelphia Eagles, but I'm not so sure that thought will come to fruition. There are some good reasons why the Bucs have lost three consecutive games in Veterans Stadium over the last three seasons. The Vet is a tough place to play. And that Eagles team – well, they're not bad, either."
"Tampa Bay has been outplayed by Philadelphia's offensive and defensive lines in its three most recent trips to Philly. If the Bucs seriously think they can escape the Vet with the upset Sunday, they can't afford to lose those two battles in the trenches again. Bucs quarterback Brad Johnson needs time to throw and the Bucs must establish the running game in order to develop a legitimate play-action pass attack."
"My thoughts and prayers go out to wide receiver Joe Jurevicius and his family. That said, it's a good thing he'll be able to play in Sunday's game. Jurevicius has been a solid No. 3 wide out this season and Brad Johnson will likely look to his No. 3 receiver in man-to-man coverage Sunday due to the variety of blitz packages Philadelphia defensive coordinator Jim Johnson will throw at the Bucs."
"Tampa Bay's defense can limit Philadelphia's offensive production, but I don't think the Bucs' offense can drive the field on the Eagles' defense. That said, special teams could make or break this game for both teams. Eagles return man Brian Mitchell is one of the best in the business and he's really good in the Vet because it's so hard for the coverage men to keep their footing."
"The Bucs must win the turnover battle in Philly and its offense must do something it couldn't do in its three previous games at the Vet – score an offensive touchdown. After talking to the Bucs players this week, they made me a believer. I really do believe the Bucs believe they can go into Philadelphia and beat the Eagles in this game. There's a sense of urgency on Tampa Bay's part. I think they feel the window of opportunity is shutting on them and they know how hard it is to get back to where they are now."
"The Bucs will play better on Sunday than they did in their three previous trips to Philadelphia. But will that effort be enough to upset arguably the most balanced team in the NFL? I don't think so, but that's why they play the games. Doesn't this game remind you an awful lot of the Bucs-Rams NFC Championship Game back in 1999? No one gave the Bucs a chance to win that game, but they damn near did it. If they catch a few breaks and don't shoot themselves in the foot, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers could actually pull off the upset this time around."
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