One Step Away
Roy Cummings, The Tampa Tribune, published 13 January 2003

For those who weren't convinced by the franchise-best 12-4 record he compiled during the regular season, Coach Jon Gruden quickly proved Sunday that the enormous price the Bucs paid to get him was indeed warranted. Within nine minutes of taking the opening kickoff, Gruden got something out of the Bucs' offense that former coach Tony Dungy didn't get in his final three playoff games - a touchdown.

And once Gruden's Bucs hit the gas, they never let up. Seemingly making up for their previous inability to break into the end zone in the playoffs, the Bucs scored three more touchdowns in the first half en route to a 31-6 pasting of the San Francisco 49ers in their NFC divisional playoff game at Raymond James Stadium. ``This offense isn't anything like the one we had the last three years,'' Bucs defensive tackle Warren Sapp said after the Bucs earned a berth in the NFC Championship Game for the third time in their 27-year history. ``This offense doesn't even line up in [its base scheme] the same way, and it showed today on the scoreboard.''

It wasn't evident on the scoreboard Oct. 20, when the Bucs dropped a 20-10 decision to the Eagles at Philadelphia's grimy Veterans Stadium. And that's cause for concern. For if the Bucs are to continue justifying their owners' decision to spend four draft picks and $8 million on Gruden, they're going to have to beat the Eagles next Sunday at the Vet to do it.

That doesn't figure to be easy, especially for the Bucs. They have lost two consecutive playoff games at the decrepit Vet, scoring just 12 points - all on field goals - in the process. But the Bucs did nothing Sunday to indicate that scoring or winning at the Vet isn't possible this season. In addition to setting team playoff records for points, margin of victory and total yards (329), the Bucs also shut down the league's eighth-ranked offense.

One week after watching the 49ers bounce back from a 24- point deficit, the Bucs limited them to a pair of Jeff Chandler field goals while forcing five turnovers and allowing 228 total yards. ``Defensively, they kept us out of rhythm all day,'' 49ers receiver Tai Streets said. ``They hounded us all afternoon. You can't say it was just one phase. It was an overall team win.''

Seldom has anyone been able to say that about a Bucs victory, playoff or otherwise. Traditionally, the Bucs' offense has done just enough to keep an extraordinary defensive effort from being wasted. And for a moment Sunday, it appeared as if this game would follow that pattern. Self- destructing on their opening drive, the Bucs turned the ball over on a Brad Johnson interception six plays into the game. The defense got the ball back three plays later, and that's when the Bucs' offense shifted into another gear, marching 74 yards in 12 plays to complete the first of three consecutive touchdown drives. ``We knew we couldn't afford to relax against them,'' Gruden said. ``We knew we had to get down there and get into the end zone against them. I mean, we saw that comeback they had last week. When you see a team do something like that, you have to be respectful of that.''

Any hope the 49ers might have had of a comeback disappeared during a three-play span that began near the end of the first half and ended one play into the second. On the first of those plays, Derrick Brooks intercepted a Jeff Garcia pass with 2:08 remaining to set up the Bucs' fourth TD, a 2-yard Mike Alstott run that gave Tampa Bay a 28-6 lead. Then, after the 49ers took a knee despite having the ball at their 40 with 50 seconds remaining in the half, Dwight Smith intercepted a Garcia pass early in the second half to set up the Bucs' fifth score, a 19-yard Martin Gramatica field goal. ``We turned the ball over way too many times today and didn't execute the game plan,'' 49ers center Jeremy Newberry said. ``We wanted to pound the ball a bit, but we got behind early and weren't able to do that.''

Running the ball wasn't the only thing the 49ers couldn't do. They couldn't convert their third downs either. First in the league in that category during the regular season, the 49ers converted just two of 12 against the Bucs. The Bucs, meanwhile, converted 59 percent on third down overall and went 8-for- 10 in that category to start the game. The fast start was something of a surprise, considering Johnson was coming off a layoff of nearly a month.

Johnson lacked rhythm and struggled to re-acclimate himself to the speed of the game early on, Gruden said. Johnson was relatively sharp on third down, though, completing two third-down passes to keep the first scoring drive alive and another to Joe Jurevicius to finish the second. ``On a scale of one to 10, that was a 100,'' Jurevicius said of Johnson's touchdown pass, a 20-yard strike that Jurevicius caught in stride as he streaked across the end zone. ``That was a great throw. We worked on it in practice and perfected it out here.''

With starting corner Jason Webster missing from the start and starting corner Ahmed Plummer leaving the game early, the Bucs had an idea they could play a near-perfect game offensively. ``We knew Jurevicius and the boys could handle them out there on the corners because their cornerbacks were out and we have the favorable matchups,'' Sapp said. ``We had a favorable matchup with their offensive line and our defensive line, too. We thought we could take advantage of them.''

Whether the Bucs can take advantage of the Eagles is another matter. The Vet has presented nothing but problems for them and the Bucs have been established as 3 1/2-point underdogs in the title game. The Bucs, though, have sensed that earning a trip to the Super Bowl would require them beating the Eagles in Philadelphia, and they seem ready and eager to face the challenge. ``Go ahead and stack all the odds against us; that's fine,'' Jurevicius said. ``We'll go up there and play. We wouldn't want it any other way.''