Lombardi Trophy Reunion

Sometimes the importance of history goes unnoticed by the talking heads who cover the NFL. Occasionally, history is paid homage to on a "classics" channel, or on late night sports programming when only the diehards are still awake. History will be on center stage this Saturday as the teams that have won the last four Super Bowls meet in the bitter cold of New England, when the Patriots play Jon Gruden's Buccaneers. Gruden prefers to forget about history, at least when it comes to the Patriots.

Let this marinate. The only two teams to win the Super Bowl since the 2001 season meet Sunday in Foxboro, Mass.

The Tampa Bay Buccaneers' victory in Super Bowl XXXVII was the only hiccup in the Patriots' run of three Lombardi Trophies in four years.

A December game between two division leaders is pivotal enough without the need for more storylines. But there are more.

The last time Jon Gruden faced the Patriots, it was as coach of the Oakland Raiders in the 2001 AFC divisional playoff game, forever remembered for the "Tuck Rule."

AFC Divisional Playoffs. Tom Brady's controversial play (AP Photo)

Neither the Bucs nor Patriots resemble the powerhouse teams that reached the Super Bowl. But they remain championship competitors.

Tampa Bay still has plenty of players left from their NFL title, especially on defense - Derrick Brooks, Simeon Rice, Ronde Barber, Brian Kelly, Shelton Quarles, Greg Spires and even Super Bowl MVP safety Dexter Jackson.

But the offense has been nearly completely rebuilt, with right tackle Kenyatta Walker as the only holdover.

Quarterback Chris Simms, in his third pro season, leads a young offense that is getting big contributions from rookies like running back Cadillac Williams, tight end Alex Smith and guard Dan Buenning.

This is the last of three straight road games for the Bucs, who have beaten the Saints and Carolina to earn a share of first place in the NFC South with the Panthers.

But even at 9-4, the Bucs still feel slighted.

"We're going up there, Tampa, we are a warm weather team, we aren't supposed to win in the Northeast in December," Simms said. "And, of course, they are the two-time defending Super Bowl champs. So we have our work cut out for us, and we definitely have to play a good game to get out of there with a win."

The Bucs are using a familiar formula to a possible postseason berth. Tampa Bay is getting big plays from its defense, especially Barber, who has four interceptions and a sack in his last two games.

Meanwhile, Simms has grown up fast in Gruden's offense, winning four of the last five games after an 0-2 start. He took over for Brian Griese, who had season-ending knee surgery.

Still, the Bucs know this may be their toughest test of the regular season.

"The Patriots are the champs until there's a newly crowned champ, just like the (NHL's Tampa Bay) Lightning," Bucs defensive tackle Chris Hovan said. "They may have gone a year on strike, but they're still the champs. We have to go up there and we have to take it to the champs at their house. Let's be a great road team. Let's finish up this road series going against New England on their turf, and let's get the job done."

Gruden can't help but have some bad memories of playing New England in Foxboro.

In fact, this week he has tried to avoid talking about it. But in many ways, that game changed the course of several football teams. The Patriots went on to win their first of three Super Bowl titles, and Gruden was traded to the Bucs a month later.

"Well, anytime you lose a game like that and you're the opposing coach and your team comes out on the short end, you're going to obviously be disappointed," Gruden said. "I was disappointed for our players. It was (Steve) Wisniewski's last game and Eric Allen's last game as a football player, so it was hard to face them. I still can't get over the second-and-2 play where we had the ball and a chance to run out the clock and we got our guard up in the hole with our back and there's a big hole there. The game is over. Somehow, some way, Tedy Bruschi makes the play to stop the back.

"And then Richard Seymour made a great play on third-and-1. Those are the two plays, more than the 'Tuck Rule,' that still today have me tipping my hat to those two guys they have on defense. (Adam) Vinatieri made a 45-yard field goal at the end of regulation in Antarctica, and I couldn't believe it. God Almighty. And then, Tom Brady, the guy we really don't know much about. There's a reason why the Patriots won. It's a hell of a lot more than the 'Tuck Rule' that was the reason they won that game.

"I just think nobody thinks about that game. You know what I mean? That's a glitch on the radar screen. It was a great night. A beautiful evening. It was the last game in that stadium. Very disappointing, as I look back on it, to have lost. But that's football, man. That's football."

This time, weather should not be a factor. The forecast calls for clear skies and temperature of about 37 degrees.

Gruden even has pulled out the emblem from the Bucs' run to a Super Bowl - a 200-plus-pound piece of granite that symbolizes their Pound the Rock theme.

"We just wanted to emphasize that the Rock doesn't have any feelings," Gruden said. "You can't have a weak mind. You just have to keep swinging that sledgehammer at that rock. You don't know which swing is going to crack that rock, but if you keep hitting it as hard as you can with as many guys as we can, we've got a chance to break it open and explode onto the scene. Who knows what will happen?"

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