- The Washington Times - Tuesday, January 14, 2003

Beware the near-perfect playoff performance in the NFL. Heartbreak is often just around the corner.
The Jets reminded us of this unfortunate fact of life over the weekend. After all, nobody in the league was more en fuego than the J-E-T-S Jets and their young quarterback, Chad Pennington. They'd steamrolled the Colts 41-0 in the wild-card round and were looking like they might give the Raiders a serious run, even in Oakland.
Final score: Pride and Poise Boys 30, Jets 10.
Letdowns like this are the rule rather than the exception in pro football. There have been five big-time blowouts in the postseason since 1990 (including this year's Jets-Colts giggler), and in every case every single one the winning team lost its next game, usually by a bunch of points. The sordid details:
2000 The Giants eviscerate the Vikings 41-0 (sound familiar?) in the NFC Championship game. In the Super Bowl, though, the Ravens take them apart 34-7.
1999 The Jaguars destroy the Dolphins 62-7 in the AFC semis. Alas, the conference title game is a different story: Titans 33, Jags 14.
1995 The Eagles build a 51-7 lead against the Lions in a wild-card game before calling off the dogs and settling for a 58-37 win. The next week: Cowboys 30, Eagles 11.
1990 The Bills rip the Raiders 51-3 in the AFC Championship game. On Super Bowl Sunday, however, Buffalo falls to the Giants 20-19.
I bring this up because the Bucs just played perhaps their best game ever that's right, in the entire history of the franchise in their 31-6 flogging of the 49ers. They held the Niners without a touchdown for the first time all season, and they rang up 28 points in the first half alone.
"It's very exciting," Jon Gruden said afterward. "It opens your eyes not only the coaches, but every guy in the locker room that we're capable of getting this done."
It's very exciting, but it's also a trifle unsettling, given recent history as Gruden well knows. Two years ago, his Oakland club mauled Miami 27-0 in the divisional round. In their next outing, the Raiders were roughed up by the Ravens 19-3.
Tampa Bay's opponent in the NFC title game, the Eagles, didn't look nearly as dominating in their 20-6 victory over the Falcons. But if I were Andy Reid, I'd take that as a good sign a sign that his team hasn't peaked yet. You don't want to wheel out your A game too early in the proceedings. Better to save it for when you really need it.
Besides, a 14-point win against one of Dan Reeves' clubs, which are always impeccably prepared in the playoffs, is nothing to be ashamed of. The main thing, as far as Philly is concerned, is that Donovan McNabb got back on the field again after eight weeks away and played like the Donovan of old. Now if his ankle can just hold up a while longer
The Bucs, for their part, are trying hard to rise above the level of "paper champions" (as the Steelers' Lee Flowers dubbed them late in the season). Brad Johnson talked after the 49ers game about how the Bucs "have a lot of great players who've made the Pro Bowl year after year, but if you want to have a legacy you have to win the Super Bowl. That's the direction this team is hopefully heading [in]."
The Tampa Bay defense is an anachronism, it truly is. So many clubs in these free agent days have a slapped-together, mix-and-match quality about them, but the Bucs' D is different. Nine of the 11 starters have never played for any other NFL club and eight of them John Lynch, Warren Sapp, Derrick Brooks, Ronde Barber, Shelton Quarles, Alshermond Singleton, Brian Kelly and Dexter Jackson have been teammates for at least four seasons. No wonder they function so well as a unit.
The offense is just the opposite. Brad Johnson came from the Redskins, Keyshawn Johnson from the Jets, Keenan McCardell from the Jags, Joe Jurevicius from the Giants, Michael Pittman from the Cardinals, Ken Dilger from the Colts. And those are just the skill position guys.
From the point of view of Redskins fans, this NFC Championship game is absolutely fascinating. On the Tampa Bay side, you've got old friend Brad Johnson. "We just fed off Brad's fire," Pittman said following Sunday's big win. On the Philly side, you've got James Thrash, Shawn Barber, Brian Mitchell, N.D. Kalu four more refugees from Dan Snyder's Reign of Error. Thrash caught the clinching TD pass against the Falcons on Saturday. Which of 'em do you suppose will make Dan the Man look bad this week?
The Eagles are at home and the Bucs aren't. McNabb can move and Johnson can't. The Philly defense has been known to give up some rushing yards, but Tampa Bay doesn't run it well enough to take advantage. For all these reasons plus the fact that the Bucs just played a near-perfect game (horrors!) I'm expecting the Eagles to close up Veterans Stadium in style.


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