- The Washington Times - Monday, January 13, 2003

TAMPA, Fla. With 60 minutes of killer football yesterday, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers seemed to chase away all the clouds of pessimism that have hovered over the franchise in recent years. Their vaunted defense devoured Pro Bowlers Jeff Garcia and Terrell Owens, and they set a club playoff record for points in a 31-6 clock-cleaning of the San Francisco 49ers.
One more victory over the Eagles in Philadelphia in the NFC Championship game would send the Bucs to their first Super Bowl. They haven't had much success against Philadelphia the last three seasons (0-4), but they're anxious to try their luck again. As defensive tackle Warren Sapp put it, "We're two weeks away from the greatest show on earth."
While Sapp, linebacker Derrick Brooks et al. were holding up their end, limiting the 49ers to just 228 yards and a pair of field goals, Brad Johnson and the Tampa Bay offense were putting on "as good a performance in the first 25 or 30 minutes as we've had all season," in the estimation of coach Jon Gruden.
The Bucs broke it open with three touchdowns in the second quarter, the first two coming on passes by erstwhile Redskins quarterback Brad Johnson (20 yards to wide receiver Joe Jurevicius and 12 yards to tight end Rickey Dudley). That gave them a 28-6 lead at halftime fullback Mike Alstott ran for their two other scores and they shifted into autopilot after that.
"It was an awesome day," said Johnson (15 of 31 for 196 yards and one interception), who put up better numbers than Garcia (22 of 41, 196 yards, no TDs, three picks), one of the QBs who beat him out for the Pro Bowl. "[Red-and-white Bucs] Flags waving. Coming off a bye. This is what the fans wanted."
About the only thing that wasn't "awesome" about the day was the "six- or seven-" stitch cut Johnson got over his left eye while being tackled on a third-quarter scramble. He went to the sideline briefly for repairs, but said the cut "shouldn't really affect me" in the NFC title game.
Johnson also didn't appear to suffer any ill effects from the back injury that sidelined him in Tampa Bay's last two regular season games. Gruden thought his quarterback was "out of rhythm on a couple of throws early," but then he got his timing and "played a great game. He's a key to why we're here."
The 49ers looked for the most part like the team that had fallen behind the Giants, 38-14, the week before, not like the one that had scored 25 points in the last 20 minutes for an improbable 39-38 win. Losing Ahmed Plummer, their top cover corner, in the first four minutes didn't make the going any easier for them. Neither did five turnovers.
"We just couldn't get anything to go right," said Garcia, "and that's a credit to them, too. When you play a good defensive football team like the Bucs are, if you get yourself in a hole like we did, it's going to be very difficult to climb out of it."
By game's end, the frustrations of the Tony Dungy era indeed, of the Bucs' entire history seemed far away. And according to the players, the new coach deserves much of the credit.
"He's meant the world," Sapp said of Gruden. "You can ask every guy. He will touch every guy with a 30-second speech. He's got us feeling special about ourselves. Every day, he's telling us that he loves us. That's a little strange telling 58 men that you love them. But we know that he does, and we love him, too. So we just want to go out and kill for him."
They'll find out Sunday if they're "special" enough to beat the Eagles at Veteran's Stadium. "We've looked at it all season long like it was going to be us versus Philly [for the NFC championship]," said Johnson.
And here they are.

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