Bucs Set Sail For San Diego!

January 19 - Tampa Bay earns first ever Super Bowl berth after FINALLY beating the Eagles at Veterans Stadium, 27-10. Jon Gruden will face his old team, the Raiders, in Super Bowl XXXVII.

PHILADELPHIA - The Tampa Bay Buccaneers exorcised a lot of demons in their 27-10 domination of the Philadelphia Eagles in the City of Brotherly Love to capture the National Football Conference championship crown and advance to San Diego to make their first trip to a Super Bowl in franchise history. The Bucs will battle the Oakland Raiders, Jon Gruden's former team, in Super Bowl XXXVII after the Raiders defeated the Tennessee Titans 41-24.

Gruden thoroughly outcoached his counterpart and friend, Andy Reid, who was named the Associated Press NFL Coach of the Year last week. Gruden's playcalling was superb and all of the adjustments the Bucs made were timely and right on the money in all phases of the game.

It took the Glazers four high draft picks and $8 million to pry Gruden from Raiders owner Al Davis' grasp, and the owners, players and Tampa Bay fans realize that Gruden is worth it all.

Tampa Bay was fighting many outside forces other than the guys in green on the gridiron. First was the weather, which was a biting 26 degrees at kickoff with a brisk 14-mph wind dropping the "feels like" temperature down to 16 degrees. To go along with the blustery conditions was the slippery and dangerous playing surface at venerable Veterans Stadium. Yes, they have changed to a new type of artificial surface, but it is still rock hard and unforgiving. Finally, it was the last football game at the Buccaneers' own personal house of horrors, Veterans Stadium, where the last two seasons came to an abrupt end for Tampa Bay. The Eagles are moving to their new home across the parking lot in 2003 ­ and the fans, especially the ones that were extra lathered up in the 700 level, were more vociferous than normal and couldn't wait to get into the game.

If the Bucs planned to take the Eagles crowd out of the game early, it backfired on the opening kickoff of the game. Eagles return man Brian Mitchell took Martin Gramatica's opening boot at his own four-yard line and split the Bucs coverage team for a 70-yard return down to the Bucs 26-yard line. Two plays later, the Birds had their first lead of the game at 14:28 of the opening period and it seemed like a rout was on.

The Buccaneers, from that point on, used a suffocating defense to squeeze the life out of an inept Eagles offense like a boa constrictor. Each time Philadelphia thought they were moving in for a score, after their initial touchdown on a 20-yard scamper by running back Duce Staley 52 seconds into the contest, the Pewter Pirates just turned up the pressure until Philly cracked.

The Philadelphia offense was a sham on Sunday, especially the running game. If you factor out the first scoring run, the Eagles ran the ball 20 times for 60 yards. It doesn't take a rocket scientist to figure that comes out to three yards per carry and that will not get it done in the NFL.

The only part of the Eagles offense that was worse than there rushing game was their passing attack and that didn't bode well for Philly. Quarterback Donovan McNabb had a horrendous outing, going 26-of-49 for 243 yards and no touchdowns with one costly interception. That equates to a quarterback rating of 58.5 and that will not get it done in the NFL either.

What did get it done for the Eagles were special teams. After the Bucs answered the Philly touchdown with a 48-yard field goal by Gramatica, Mitchell took the ensuing kickoff back 43 yards to their own 44-yard line. This time, the Bucs forced a three-and-out and a Philly punt, but this next series for Tampa Bay would begin the turning point of the game.

Having a first-and-10 at their own 31-yard line quarterback Brad Johnson tried to hit wide receiver Keyshawn Johnson with a corner route that was picked off by Eagles cornerback Bobby Taylor at the Bucs 47-yard line. The Pro Bowl corner returned the pilfer a yard to set the Eagles up with great field position at the Bucs 46-yard line.

That was Johnson's only miscue of the day. He was 20-for-33 for the afternoon with a touchdown pass to offset the interception. But the big stat was that Johnson was not sacked the entire afternoon due to an exceptional job by the offensive line of the Buccaneers.

Philadelphia was able to move the ball as close as the Bucs 32-yard line before they had to punt the ball away. Keeping the Eagles out of the end zone and forcing punter Lee Johnson to boot it back to the Bucs was half of the turning point and it played a huge part in Tampa Bay's win. The second half of the turning point was that the Buccaneers proceeded to go from their own 4-yard line, 96 yards to take a 10-7 lead that they would not relinquish for the rest of the game.

The big play in the drive was a 71-yard catch-and-run from Johnson to receiver Joe Jurevicious, who eluded linebacker Barry Gardner. Jurevicius received a great downfield block from tight end Ken Dilger, who had three catches for 41 yards on the day and allowed Jurevicius to pick up an extra 20 yards. This took the football down to the Eagles 5-yard line, and Mike Alstott powered in the score from a yard away.

Midway through the second period the Eagles knotted the score at 10 apiece when kicker David Akers connected from 30 yards out. The Bucs answered that with a score of their own on their next possession to stretch the lead to seven points when Brad Johnson hit Keyshawn Johnson, who finished with three catches for 40 yards, on a slant pass to make it 17-10 before halftime.

The Birds had a chance to come back with a score of their own before the half, but fumbled with less than a minute to go in the second quarter. Defensive end Simeon Rice did the honors when he knocked the ball away from McNabb's hand and recovered it as well.

The Bucs extended their lead to 20-10 with another Gramatica field goal and this one was from 27 yards away at 1:02 of the third period. This score forced the Eagles to completely abandon the run and throw caution to the wind while playing catch up.

Philadelphia had one last gasp left, and with 6:31 remaining in the game, the Eagles started from their own 18-yard line. McNabb moved Philly all the way from the Eagles 18-yard line to the Bucs 10 before cornerback Ronde Barber, playing the nickel weakside linebacker, stepped in front of a McNabb pass intended for receiver Antonio Freeman at the Bucs 8. Barber caught the ball and raced 92 yards to the house to stretch the lead to 27-10 and you could stick a fork in the Eagles because they were done.

The key stat of the game was that the Bucs caused three turnovers and only gave up one. One two occasions the Bucs stopped the Eagle cold ­ no pun intended - with turnovers when McNabb was sacked twice. The Bucs defense shut down one of the NFL's most prolific scoring machines.

Now we will see if the defense can stand up toe-to-told with the Oakland Raiders in Super Bowl XXXVII. Having conquered Philadelphia, expect Gruden and the Bucs to be up for the challenge.

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