The crowd did not hurl insults or batteries, the playing surface was not concrete and the only ice was found in drinks. It felt nothing like last season or probably even this week to the Bucs. Backstreet Boy Nick Carter sang the national anthem, proving nothing about the game was 'N Sync. But the Bucs did play the Philadelphia Eagles in the regular-season finale Sunday night. A rivalry was renewed, bad blood revisited and perhaps the tone was set for Saturday's wild-card playoff game at Philadelphia in the only way it could be -- by most of the starters from both teams waving to each other from their respective sideline.
With the stars from each team either taking the night off or making cameo appearances, the Eagles used two fourth-quarter touchdown passes from third-string quarterback A.J. Feeley to Dameane Douglas for a come-from-behind 17-13 victory. Douglas' second touchdown, a 24-yard reception, came two plays after Karl Williams fumbled a kickoff. Just 26 seconds earlier, the Bucs had what looked like a comfortable 13-3 lead. But Douglas scored on a 2-yard reception with 2:12 remaining. "The bottom line is the whistle was blown and it was real live football Brian Kelly said. "They came up with the win. We know what's on the line: 10-6 looks a lot better than 9-7. But if we win next week, it means a lot more than winning this week."
If embattled Bucs coach Tony Dungy needed any more career highlights on his resume to show team owners, he came up short by failing to win at least his 10th game for the third straight season, a feat that would have been matched this season only by the St. Louis Rams. "It was disappointing to be at home and have the game the way we wanted it at 13-3 and just have to finish off the last five minutes of the game," Dungy said. "But we weren't able to do that."
All week, the Bucs talked about gaining momentum to carry into Veterans Stadium. The Bucs travel to Philadelphia for the second straight year for their NFC wild-card game Saturday. But Tampa Bay will have to wait six days to see if it accomplished that. The Bucs took a 13-3 halftime lead on a pair of field goals by Doug Brien sandwiched around Aaron Stecker's 4-yard touchdown run. Stecker's touchdown was set up by John Lynch's interception of a Koy Detmer pass late in the first quarter.
Tampa Bay permitted starting quarterback Brad Johnson to play one series and it produced a 3-0 lead before backup Shaun King took over. The Eagles approached the game like a virtual bye week. Quarterback Donovan McNabb started and handed off twice. Then he gave way to Detmer on third down, who passed incomplete. Of course, there was good reason not to expose McNabb to the Bucs pass rush. Philadelphia gave its entire starting offensive line the night off.
The Bucs wouldn't even allow several starters near their lockers. Receiver Keyshawn Johnson and running back Warrick Dunn were not in uniform. "I could've played tonight," Dunn said. "But this gives my foot time to heal and get a little relaxation."
Johnson, who had missed one previous game in his six-year career, took the night off in stride. "I'd rather rest," he said. "I don't really care about the (NFL receiving) record. I've done what it takes to get my team into the playoffs, leading the team in receptions. I trade it for this vacation."
That sentiment was the same on the Eagles sideline, where some serious cash was left on the table. Defensive end Hugh Douglas entered Sunday needing one sack to void the final year of his contract, but was held out of the game. "It's kind of bad; I'm just sitting here and I'm not playing," said Douglas, who was asked if he begged coach Andy Reid to play. "You know what? I did do that," he said. "He had his reasons. I said I wasn't going to force the issue. He knows what he's doing."
If keeping score, the Bucs first-team beat the Eagles first team 3-0. So take that. Brien, playing his second game for Martin Gramatica, kicked a 42-yard field goal. The big play on the drive was Brad Johnson's 37-yard pass to rookie Milton Wynn, his first NFL catch. But receiver Jacquez Green dropped a pass that would have been a first down just outside the Eagles 20-yard to end the drive. "We came out very sharp and set the tempo the way we want to approach it next week," Brad Johnson said. "I think we did that tonight. We showed them some new looks to see how they would match up to it. Overall, we were able to accomplish what we wanted tonight."
King, who had made only two previous appearances this season, was under constant pressure playing behind the second-team offensive line. He finished 19-of-26 for 149 yards and an interception. There were some good moments by Stecker, running back Rabih Abdullah and Wynn.
But the best performance belonged to Feeley. The rookie from Oregon, who entered the game in the fourth quarter, completed 10-of-14 passes for 143 yards and 2 touchdowns. Williams, a normally sure-handed returner, was stripped of the ball on his kickoff return by Rashard Cook, who also recovered it at the Tampa Bay 24. On first down, cornerback Donnie Abraham nearly intercepted Feeley's pass. But he was beaten on the next play for the winning touchdown. "I should have just had both hands on the ball," Williams said. "The veteran player that I am, it's very disappointing to myself. It's just one of those things you wish you could take back."