- The Washington Times - Monday, January 20, 2003

PHILADELPHIA Apparently, Jon Gruden was worth the price.
During their first 26 seasons, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers lost all six of their road playoff games and all 20 of their games in sub-40 degree weather. But until this year, they never had the man affectionately called "Chucky" as their coach. It cost the Bucs two first-round draft picks, two second-rounders and $8million to pry Gruden loose from Oakland last February, but yesterday he made it all worth while.
In frigid Veterans Stadium, Gruden's Bucs spotted host Philadelphia a quick touchdown before recovering to upset the Eagles 27-10 to earn their first NFC title and Super Bowl berth a destination to which former coach Tony Dungy couldn't lead them. The Bucs who had been pounded in all three previous visits here the last three years will face the Raiders, the team Gruden coached the previous four seasons, Sunday in Super Bowl XXXVII in San Diego.
"It's kind of like the 'Wizard of Oz, Ding Dong the Witch is Dead,'" Gruden said. "We won a cold [weather] game, a road playoff game and we scored a touchdown at the Vet [ending a streak of 39 straight series without one]. So hopefully some of those stories will go away."
Now the stories will be about the NFL's best defense throttling the Philadelphia offense, receiver Joe Jurevicius setting up the go-ahead touchdown with a 71-yard catch as his premature son battled for life in an Ohio hospital and NFC passing leader Brad Johnson and cornerback Ronde Barber putting the lie to their Pro Bowl snubs.
"Considering that it was this stadium, dealing with these fans the way we've had to the past three years, it was a pretty sweet feeling," said Barber, who delivered one of two fumble-causing sacks of Donovan McNabb and then sealed the victory with a 92-yard interception return for a touchdown with 3:12 left. "Nobody gave us a chance to win this game, but we have our own expectations. We knew we were the better team. [Gruden] expressed that to us all week and we went out and proved it."
After Eagles halfback Duce Staley followed Brian Mitchell's electrifying 70-yard return of the opening kickoff with a 20-yard touchdown run, Barber and the Tampa Bay defense gave up just three points, nine first downs and 142 yards until the final 6:31 by which point they had built a 20-10 margin.
But Johnson and the 24th-ranked Bucs' offense also contributed in a big way. Where Tampa Bay failed to reach the end zone in its last NFC Championship game three years ago in St. Louis, yesterday it had the more effective attack.
"I left here on Oct.20 with cracked ribs [after a 20-10 loss] and today I walk away with an NFC title," said Johnson, who completed 20 of 33 passes for 259 yards, a touchdown and an interception while wearing gloves at Gruden's urging to lessen the effects of the cold and the slick footballs.
"The improvement in our offensive line has been awesome since the last Philadelphia game. We were going to attack at all costs. The big thing was we didn't panic after Brian's kickoff return; we go right down the field and score to make it 7-3. After the interception [which Johnson threw right to Eagles cornerback Bobby Taylor at the Tampa 47], we score on the third drive and then on the fifth drive [on his 9-yard slant to wideout Keyshawn Johnson]. We were making plays."
None bigger than the one by Jurevicius. He hadn't practiced all week because of his son Michael's birth on Tuesday, but yesterday with the Bucs trailing 7-3 and facing third-and-2 at their 26, Jurevicius broke out of a bunch formation, drew single coverage from linebacker Barry Gardner, grabbed Johnson's pass over the middle and raced down the sideline before being pushed out at the Philadelphia 5. Fullback Mike Alstott scored two plays later and the Bucs never trailed again.
"Joe's play really gave us some confidence," Johnson said. "He's a spark plug. He made one catch tonight and he's Superman. That catch will go down in Tampa Bay history. We caught them with the perfect play against the perfect coverage."
With homefield advantage throughout the NFC playoffs, the Eagles had the perfect script to reach their first Super Bowl in 22 years. But for the third straight game dating to their 10-7 loss in the regular season finale against the New York Giants, their offense mustered little while their formerly tight defense gave up big chunks of yardage. And yesterday the defense couldn't get the red zone stops it had in last week's 20-6 triumph over Atlanta or against the Giants.
"They came out and got after us and we didn't answer the ball on a few things," said coach Andy Reid, whose Eagles lost last year's NFC title game 29-24 in St. Louis. "It's very disappointing to come this far and lose."
Especially in the final football game at the Vet. Instead, the day belonged to Gruden, the Eagles' former offensive coordinator.


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