Sunday, January 19, 2003

Bucs savor opportunity of NFC showdown

The (Fort Myers, Fla.) News-Press

PHILADELPHIA - On a steamy, miserably hot and humid day in late July, the Tampa Bay Bucs reported to the Celebration Hotel, their training camp residence in central Florida.

They faced about a month of training camp. There would be four exhibition games and 16 regular-season games. There were short-term goals. Form a team. Learn a new offense. Prepare for the season.

Somewhere on the horizon, there were long-term goals - the playoffs and the Super Bowl.

Now, the goals are short-term. The horizon is staring them in the face.

The Bucs play the Philadelphia Eagles at 3 p.m. Sunday in the NFC Championship Game in Veterans Stadium. Temperatures will be in the 20s, or about 60 degrees cooler than the day they gathered in Celebration.

Tampa Bay defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin knows what's on the line. The Bucs have never been to a Super Bowl. Kiffin has been in the NFL since 1983 and has never been to a Super Bowl.

"You have to win enough games to get to this game," Kiffin said. "You just can't say that the first day of camp, pre-season. We only need to win one game to go to the Super Bowl."

That wasn't the case in July or August, September or October, November or December. Now it is.

"How hard is it to win one game?" Kiffin said. "Come on. Let's go win one game. That's 60 minutes."

It will be a challenging 60 minutes. Perhaps as challenging as any the Bucs have faced all season. They were 12-4 in the regular season. They won the NFC South. They earned a first-round playoff bye and beat the San Francisco 49ers, 31-6 last week.

The Eagles beat the Bucs 20-10 on Oct. 20. Philadelphia is playing at home.

It will be cold. Eagles fans will be heated and frenzied. Philadelphia has one of the NFL's most-balanced teams. Their defense leads the league in sacks. Their rushing attack is seventh.

For both franchises and their fans, the magnitude of this game can't be overstated. The Bucs are 0-for-2 in conference title games. The Eagles won one, back in 1980. They've never won a Super Bowl.

This will be the final football game in Veterans Stadium.

"This game will be one for the ages," Tampa Bay defensive end Simeon Rice said.

Ideally, the Bucs would like to get an early lead and perhaps settle down fired-up Eagles fans.

"Well, we had the lead on them last game," Tampa Bay coach Jon Gruden said.

When the Bucs played the Eagles in Philadelphia on Oct. 20, they took a 7-3 lead in the first quarter after linebacker Derrick Brooks returned a fumble 11 yards for a touchdown.

The lead slipped away, which often happens to road teams in the NFL.

There are other factors that don't bode well for Tampa Bay. The Bucs have won only one game in franchise history when the game-time temperature is below 40.

"It's been pointed out to us," Gruden said. "But we also have confidence we can get the job done."

Both teams are confident. They are the top two seeds in the NFC. They are the toughest teams in the NFL to score on. The Eagles have seven Pro Bowl players. That doesn't include quarterback Donovan McNabb, who missed six games with a broken ankle but came back to lead the Eagles to a 20-6 victory over the Atlanta Falcons last week.

The Bucs don't see lingering effects from the injury to McNabb. Is he 100 percent?

"He's as close as he's going to get," Tampa Bay defensive tackle Warren Sapp said. "I saw him get out of the pocket and take off for 20 yards and didn't look like he was hurt to me."

Like the Eagles, the Bucs will be represented at the Pro Bowl. They have five players selected for that game.

That doesn't matter. Not Sunday. Not with what is at stake. Not with two top teams playing for a shot at the big prize.

"I think it's the best two teams in the NFC playing," Gruden said. "That's the way I look at it."

Only one member of the Bucs has ever played in a Super Bowl. Back-up defensive tackle Lomas Brown, 39, was with the New York Giants, who lost 34-7 to the Baltimore Ravens in Super Bowl XXXV in Tampa.

Other than Brown, every Tampa Bay player and coach is still searching for their first Super Bowl.

"Words don't even describe the emotions right now," Rice said. "I think the defining moment will come when we play. I think you will see everything that we need to express then. But I don't have any lyrics for this right now. But to play in this game is an opportunity of a lifetime and we need to take advantage of this opportunity."

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