Advantage, Philadelphia. That's what Sunday's mostly meaningless regular-season finale between the Bucs and Eagles at Raymond James Stadium was all about. It was about gaining an edge to carry into next Saturday's playoff game at Philadelphia's Veterans Stadium.
The Eagles did that, rallying in the waning minutes of the fourth quarter and winning 17-13 thanks primarily because they had the better bench. Of course, it figured that the team with the better bench play would win. Ever since last weekend, when it became known that Tampa Bay and Philadelphia would meet again in the first round of the playoffs, both teams promised to approach this game as if it were an exhibition. And that they did.
One look at the starting lineup gave the impression that it was a baseball exhibition the coaches had in mind. With each team scratching several notable regulars, the game kicked off looking a lot like a spring training game featuring two B-squads. Among those on the sidelines in street clothes were Bucs running back Warrick Dunn and wide receiver Keyshawn Johnson and Eagles running back Duce Staley and defensive end Hugh Douglas.
Though shut down for most of the game, the Eagles rallied behind the play of third-team quarterback A.J. Feeley to erase a 10-3 Bucs lead and finish the regular season with an 11-5 record. The Bucs, meanwhile, finish at 9-7, marking the first time in two years that they failed to win 10 games. We played about 50 good minutes of football, Tony Dungy said. We wanted to finish up the season and get that 10th win, and we're usually pretty good at holding leads in the fourth quarter. But we didn't do that today.
Finally taking advantage of their good field position, the Eagles' late rally started when Feeley hit Dameane Douglass with a 2-yard scoring strike with 2:12 to play. That cut the Bucs' lead to 13-10, and the comeback continued when Karl Williams fumbled away the ensuing kickoff. It was completed two plays later when Feeley hooked up again with Douglass, this time on a 21-yard touchdown pass. I should have just had both hands on the ball, Williams said of his fumble. The veteran player that I am, it's very disappointing. It's one of those things you wish you could take back.
The Bucs' attempts to put together a last-minute scoring drive failed, leaving them with the hope that their first-teamers can produce a better result when the stakes are higher next week. Working mostly with reserves, Brad Johnson completed three of four passes for 46 yards, driving the Bucs 62 yards in nine plays during his only series, which resulted in Doug Brien kicking a 42-yard field goal that gave the Bucs a 3-0 lead.
Although some regulars such defensive end Simeon Rice and left tackle Kenyatta Walker played throughout the game, it was the reserves who got most of the playing time after that. And for awhile, their production matched an effort which was applauded by Tony Dungy. For instance, Dunn understudy Aaron Stecker ran eight times for 43 yards and a touchdown in the first half before finishing with 12 carries for 35 yards. Milton Wynn, meanwhile, had four catches for 69 yards while Rabih Abdullah accounted for 60 total yards. I was really pleased with the second group playing well, Dungy said. It's nice to see Aaron Stecker, Milton Wynn and Frank Murphy go in there and get a chance to show what they can do. I thought Milton gave us a big lift early.
The regulars also made some significant contributions. John Lynch intercepted Eagles reserve quarterback Koy Detmer three plays into Philadelphia's second offensive series and Donnie Abraham intercepted Feeley to thwart an early fourth-quarter Eagles drive. The Bucs' offense, replete with second- and third-teamers, only took advantage of Lynch's pick. Led by Stecker, who ran three times for 13 yards, the Bucs moved 27 yards in five plays following his interception to build a 10-0 lead just one play into the second quarter.
With their offense stymied and place-kicker David Akers struggling (he hit the right upright with one field-goal attempt and missed wide right on another) it wasn't until 2:12 was left in the game that the Eagles closed the gap and stole the momentum. I'm not sure how this is going to affect us,