On To Philadelphia
Martin Fennelly, The Tampa Tribune, published 13 January 2003

The victors stood in a tunnel before it began. Raymond James Stadium was alive with 65,000 flags, some red, some white, handed out to mark the way for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. ``I hope they put that in the Madden video game next year,'' Bucs cornerback Dwight Smith said. ``It was an incredible sight.''

They weren't so bad themselves. The Bucs could not have had a more perfect afternoon. The people who should have been waving the white flags were the ones who needed them most, the San Francisco 49ers, who fell 31-6 to a playoff team we did not recognize, a team bound for the NFC Championship Game next Sunday in Philadelphia.

Were these really the playoff Bucs? Was this really a laugher? Could this be the way to San Diego and a Super Bowl? What else can you think when the Bucs score the most dominant playoff win in franchise history? What about a defense that shut down the 49ers, beginning with receiver Terrell Owens, the fabulous T.O.? R.I.P.

What about Jon Gruden's first playoff game as Bucs head coach? He has the Bucs in their third title game, just like that. This is why he was brought here. He looked like he was worth every dollar and draft pick the Glazers paid for him. With interest. Great interest. ``Nice flags,'' Gruden said.

We could give you an ice cold dose of reality and remind you what's next. Yet another trip to the concrete jungle of Veterans Stadium - the dreaded Vet - to play the Philadelphia Eagles, who have beaten the Bucs about the head and neck the last two playoff seasons. But this is about Sunday. It was 28-6 at halftime.

Clearly, the 49ers left their heart in San Francisco. This was a mass grave. The Bucs did the burying. Bucs general manager Rich McKay said, ``For the fans and people who stick by this franchise through thin and thinner, it's awfully nice to see them get rewarded with a home playoff win and not one they had to have a heart attack watching.''

Even bad turned to beautiful. The crowd gasped when Bucs quarterback Brad Johnson, finally back from a back injury, went down with a nasty gash to the head. But the crowd made a blood roar as Johnson pumped his fist while being carted from the field. He returned to finish with 196 yards passing and two touchdowns.

And there was that defense, everywhere at once, holding San Francisco to 222 total yards and Owens, a dazzler who this season autographed a touchdown ball while still in the end zone, to just five catches for 35 yards. ``We knew we'd get after him,'' said Barber, who helped jam Owens. ``We tried to make him disappear. And you would have to agree with us - that's what happened.''

What didn't happen? Tampa Mayor Dick Greco waited in the Bucs locker room to hug Gruden. Greco contemplated what he would bet the mayor of Philadelphia. ``Probably cigars,'' Greco said.

It's goofy mayoral bet time, folks. That's where we are. That's what happens when you're a win away. ``We're 60 minutes away from the greatest show on earth,'' Bucs defensive lineman Warren Sapp said.

A Super Bowl. ``There's a bounce with this team, and I've said that since training camp. You've got to start with Jon, because he's about juice.''

Meanwhile, silver-haired royalty was ushered down a hall to see Gruden. It was Bill Walsh, the former 49ers head coach who won three Super Bowls for San Francisco, designing offenses Jon Gruden grew up dreaming about. Walsh, now a 49ers consultant, wanted to see the kid. Their wizard visited our wizard. ``He offered me a job!'' Walsh joked. That was one of the greatest moments of my football career,'' Gruden said of the meeting.

So was this game. On to Philly. ``We'll play anyplace, the Vet or the Walt Whitman Bridge,'' Gruden said. ``We're going to be there.''

A bridge. All the better to jump off if the Bucs lose. Jon Gruden's eyes narrowed. No retreat. No surrender. Not a white flag in sight. Feel the juice?