- The Washington Times - Sunday, January 19, 2003

Since advancing to their lone Super Bowl in 1981, the Philadelphia Eagles have played 180 games in Veterans Stadium. And yet, none of those contests has meant as much as today's Vet finale. The charmless stadium will play host to the NFC title game between the Eagles and Tampa Bay Buccaneers to decide a berth in Super Bowl XXXVII.
"What more could you ask for in the last game at the Vet?" Eagles seventh-year Pro Bowl safety Brian Dawkins asked.
If you're the visiting Buccaneers (13-4), you could ask for a change of venue from the dank and dirty Vet, where the notoriously dangerous artificial turf and unruly fans can be as nasty and intimidating as the 13-4 Eagles. Eagles offensive tackle Jon Runyan, who visited the Vet as a Titan, best summed up its special ambience.
"The smell of beer, stale peanuts and garbage; terrible turf, the elements hopefully the weather is as terrible as it could be the crowd," Runyan said. "The Vet's the best homefield advantage I've ever seen. It doesn't have a very welcoming feel. That fits with our fans. They're ready to rock and have a good time, and they let you know about it."
The Bucs know all too well about the Vet after losing first-round playoff games there the last two seasons and a Week 7 this season by a combined 72-22. And there's the franchise's 0-6 playoff road record and 1-21 mark when the temperature at kickoff is under 40, as it should be today.
"We realize we have not had success in Veteran Stadium recently," said first-year Bucs coach Jon Gruden, who won at the Vet with the Raiders in 2001 and who worked long nights in the stadium's bowels as an Eagles assistant from 1995 to 1997. "We have a tall order in front of us. [But] what happened last year and 18 years ago is totally irrelevant. Everyone says we're 1-21. We're 1-0 as far as I know [after winning this year's finale in frosty Chicago].
"I could care less if we play Jones Junior High," Gruden said. "We're in an NFC Championship game. I wasn't here for a lot of the games and neither were [some of the] players. Let's concentrate on what needs to be done now."
The Bucs task is even more daunting considering that the Eagles' defense, offense and special teams all ranked in the NFL's top 10, a feat unmatched in the league.
What the Bucs need to do is maintain the league's best defense the first to allow the fewest points and yards while recording the most interceptions since the 1985 Chicago Bears and also get a good performance from their usually lackluster offense similar to the one in last week's 31-6 rout of San Francisco. The latter will be much harder against a Philadelphia defense that surrendered fewer points than any except the Bucs this year and held Atlanta without a touchdown in last week's 20-6 victory.
"One of the keys is to attack," said Bucs quarterback Brad Johnson, who's facing an Eagles secondary with three Pro Bowl picks and a pass rush that led the NFL with 56 sacks. "We are going to try to run the ball and switch up our protections and try to get some mismatches at different times. They are a dominant team, but they are beatable."
The only visitor to win at the Vet this season, ironically, was Indianapolis. Colts coach Tony Dungy lost his job with the Bucs last January in large part because of those one-sided playoff losses in Philadelphia. Enter Gruden, who guided the Oakland Raiders to the AFC title game two seasons ago and to the infamous tuck rule second-round loss in New England last year.
Over the last three years, Gruden is 37-16, second in the league to his fellow former Green Bay assistant, Philadelphia's Andy Reid, who's 38-16. One of Reid's 16 losses came in last year's NFC title game in St. Louis and served as a springboard for gaining homefield advantage today, a factor which has helped 17 of the past 22 such hosts to victory.
"You visualize us getting back to that spot again and doing it at the Vet," said Eagles quarterback Donovan McNabb, who was sharp last week in his return from an eight-week layoff with a broken right ankle. "We still have that taste in our mouths. Last year, people said we were the underdog and wouldn't make it as far as we did. To come into this year, having that confidence and having the experience of making it that far, knowing what we need to do to get to that point definitely has helped us out a lot."
Indeed, 18 Eagles starters are back (and safety Blaine Bishop started a Super Bowl for the Titans), while just nine Bucs have been this far (only six for Tampa Bay).
"We don't have one coach or player that has ever won a Super Bowl," Gruden said. "We're going to try our best to make sure everybody realizes just how great of an accomplishment it is to be in this championship game and what a great responsibility it is to play at your very best."


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