Eagles outslug Bucs for 20-10 victory
The Tampa Bay Buccaneers talked. The Eagles made a statement. By beating the Bucs for the fourth straight time - including three very important games at Veterans Stadium - the Eagles proved that they could go toe-to-toe with one of the best teams in the NFL and come out on top. The Eagles' 20-10 victory over Jon Gruden's Bucs yesterday gave them a 4-2 record and control of the NFC East. It also restored their status as one of the premier teams in the NFL. "We needed to beat a good team," defensive coordinator Jim Johnson said. "I think it was good for our guys to go out there against a good team and win."

The Eagles snapped the Buccaneers' five-game winning streak. More impressive, though, was the fact that for the third straight time at the Vet, including two playoff games, the Eagles did not allow Tampa Bay a single offensive touchdown. Not surprisingly, they went 3-0 in those games. "That's hard to do," Eagles linebacker Carlos Emmons said. "For some reason, we just play great defense against them. It's like they come in here thinking they're the better team. But we come in here knowing we're the better team. And we prove it."

Since losing at Jacksonville two weeks ago and sitting through their bye week, the Eagles had plenty of time to hear about how they hadn't beaten a team with a winning record all season. And they had plenty of time to hear about how good Tampa Bay's No. 1-ranked defense was. Warren Sapp & Co. hadn't allowed an offensive touchdown in three straight games. "I told our guys they had the No. 1 defense," Johnson said. "I think they wanted to show that we have the best defense in the league."

"In every publication," safety Brian Dawkins said, "all you heard about was their defense. It was like there was no defense at all over here."

"We looked at it that way," Emmons said. "Whenever we play a team with a great defense, we want to prove that we're a great defense, too."

Even as the game progressed, the Buccaneers talked. At one point, Brian Mitchell, the Eagles' return man, was near the Tampa sideline. "I could hear them yapping at me," he said. "I asked them when they were going to do something on the field. And that's when Sapp spit on me. He just spit on me. But you know what? I could have taken a swing and gotten a penalty or something. But I didn't. I guess they think they're intimidating when they're talking. Sapp is a great talker. He just doesn't perform when he plays against us."

The joy in the Eagles' postgame locker room reflected both the importance of the victory and the effort required to earn it. While the Birds enjoy beating the talkative Bucs, they don't take it for granted. "This was a tough game," Dawkins said. "It was a struggle out there."

With two stifling defenses on the field, the game was going to be decided by just a handful of plays. Early on, it looked as if the Bucs might be able to make them. They scored their only touchdown in the first quarter, when linebacker Derrick Brooks scooped up a fumble by Eagles quarterback Donovan McNabb and ran it 11 yards into the end zone for his fourth touchdown of the season. On the Eagles' very next offensive play, McNabb threw an interception to cornerback Brian Kelly. The Eagles' defense rose to that challenge, forcing the Bucs to punt, and the tug-of-war continued until late in the second quarter. "We knew we were going to have to be patient," Eagles coach Andy Reid said. "We knew not everything was going to work. We had to continue to pound it in there. We wore them down a little bit there."

When the break came, it was a big one. Mitchell set it up, returning a punt 29 yards to the Bucs' 45. After a 3-yard running play, Reid went back to the deep pass that had just missed earlier. Todd Pinkston sprinted down the right sideline, losing a cornerback and outrunning a safety. McNabb dropped a perfect pass into his hands in the end zone. Pinkston kept running, straight up the tunnel toward the Buccaneers' locker room. "I've never been up that tunnel," Pinkston said. "I wasn't sure where to go, and there were a bunch of people up there. So I went back to the field and James was waiting for me."

The Eagles had cause to celebrate. The touchdown was their first against the Bucs' defense in 14 quarters. They had three more chances to get another one. They settled for a field goal on the first, punched the ball into the end zone on the second, and didn't have to bother on the third. With the Eagles up by 13-10, cornerback Al Harris made perhaps the game's biggest play to set up their final TD. He broke on an "out" pass to Keyshawn Johnson, tipped the ball, grabbed it, and managed to land in bounds. Gruden challenged the call, hoping that replays would show that Harris had stepped on the sideline, but the play stood.

McNabb took over at the Bucs' 42. He hit Pinkston on a slant to the 30. Duce Staley took over from there, rushing four straight times to get the ball to the 6. A first down at the 5 turned into a first and goal at the 10 when tackle Jon Runyan moved before the snap. It was a crucial juncture. Getting 10 yards against the Bucs' defense isn't easy. A field goal would have given the Eagles a 16-10 lead, meaning that Tampa Bay could win the game with a touchdown. The Eagles needed a TD, and their aggressiveness made all the difference.

McNabb threw low for James Thrash on first down. On second, he threw for Thrash in the end zone again. Cornerback Dwight Smith, beaten on the route, pulled Thrash down. The pass-interference call gave the Eagles a first down on the 1. McNabb ran the ball in for the touchdown. The TD made the score 20-10. That happens to be the same score Gruden beat the Eagles by last year. He was coaching the Oakland Raiders then, and they handled the Eagles easily.

The score held up because of a couple of remarkable events. First Rob Johnson replaced Brad Johnson at quarterback and marched the Bucs all the way to the Eagles' 5. A false-start penalty on Tampa tackle Kenyatta Walker accomplished two things: It negated a fumble by Michael Pittman, one that Shawn Barber recovered for the Eagles. And it moved the Bucs back to the 11. After three straight passes failed, Martin Gramatica came in to try a chip-shot field goal. He chipped, but the ball went wide left.

Gramatica is considered the primary rival of the Eagles' David Akers for the distinction of best kicker in the NFC. That miss put his team at a huge disadvantage, with it still needing two scores to catch the Eagles. That didn't matter because Staley made two very big plays to seal the win. He ran for a first down on third and 9 from the Eagles' 21. And then he broke off a 57-yard run. It was - by some 36 yards - the longest run allowed by the Bucs this season. It gave the Eagles a first down at the Tampa 11, within striking distance of the end zone.

Reid decided to kill the clock. The Bucs were already dead. Again. "This was huge for us," Emmons said. "There's a huge difference between 4-2 and 3-3. When you're 3-3, you may think still think you're a good team, but that makes you average. We're not average."

Phil Sheridan The Philadelphia Inquirer October 2002