Super Finish
Roy Cummings, The Tampa Tribune, published 20 January 2003

Go ahead and pinch yourself, but don't pinch too hard. You are not dreaming. The headline you have just read is real. The Bucs really are in the Super Bowl. After 26 long, difficult and often embarrassing seasons, the Bucs did what so many considered improbable Sunday by beating the Philadelphia Eagles 27-10 at chilly Veterans Stadium and earning a trip to Super Bowl XXXVII in San Diego. ``It's kind of like that movie, `The Wizard of Oz,' '' said Jon Gruden, his shirt still drenched from the ice-water shower Derrick Brooks and Warren Sapp gave him as the game wound down. ``Ding, dong, the witch is dead. We won a game in cold weather; we won a road playoff game and we scored a touchdown here at the Vet. Hopefully some of those stories will go away now.''

They will for at least a week. For now the Bucs head to the warmth of the West Coast, where they will take on Gruden's former team, the Oakland Raiders, in Sunday's 37th version of what Sapp calls the ``Greatest Show on Earth.'' ``For some of us, like me and Brooks, it's like we've come full circle,'' Sapp said. ``We both won our first game ever as Bucs here at the Vet [in 1995], and now we're going to San Diego, where one day we decided we had to do something about this franchise's image.''

That fateful day in San Diego was in 1996, prior to what was then a rare 25-17 Bucs victory. As Sapp and Brooks sat in their hotel room preparing for the game, ESPN's Chris Berman ripped into their team, calling them ``the Yucks'' and insulting Sapp and Brooks to the point where they vowed to forever alter people's perception of them. Sunday's victory against the Eagles didn't do that. A victory Sunday will. That's how Bucs executive vice president Joel Glazer (``We're not done yet'') and Sapp were thinking in the wake of the Bucs' greatest victory ever. ``We're not going for the trip,'' Sapp said of San Diego. ``We have paradise in Tampa. This is not a vacation. We've got work to do.''

If their workday Sunday matches the one they put in at the Vet, Kennedy Boulevard will become a parade route. Not only that, but also die-hard fans will finally get a chance to take a wrecking ball to that ``loser'' image their team has. Maybe they can already. After all, in beating the Eagles, the Bucs exorcised many an old demon. The victory was their first on the road in the playoffs, where they were 0-6 prior to Sunday. It was also their second consecutive victory in temperatures colder than 40 degrees. Before beating the Bears on Dec. 29, the Bucs were 0-20 in such weather conditions. And most importantly, it was their first in four tries against the Eagles, who had not given up an offensive touchdown to the Bucs since 1999. ``Nobody really did expect us to win today, did they?'' Gruden asked rhetorically.

No, few did expect the Bucs to win. Even fewer expected them to win after the opening kickoff, which Eagles special teams standout Brian Mitchell returned 70 yards to the Bucs 26. Two plays later, running back Duce Staley sliced through the Bucs defense for a 20-yard gain and an early touchdown that gave Philadelphia a 7-0 lead and a load of momentum. Just like that, though, the Bucs bounced back. They drove 37 yards and connected on a 48-yard Martin Gramatica field goal to make it 7-3, then shut down the Eagles offense. Which was no easy task. Thanks to a 43-yard Mitchell kickoff return and Bobby Taylor's interception of a Brad Johnson pass on the Bucs' second series, the Eagles started their next two drives at their 44 and the Bucs 46, respectively.

The Bucs never allowed a point, though, and when Philadelphia settled for a field goal after starting a latter first-half drive at its own 38 and lost a fumble on its last drive of the half, its spirits were destroyed. ``We had the power to take control [of the game] and make things happen, and we didn't do it,'' Eagles tight end Chad Lewis said. ``You've got to take your hats off to 'em. They came in here and just stole it from us.''

Lewis was speaking in figurative terms, but his words can be taken literally. While the Bucs allowed 312 yards, they stole the ball away three times, twice on fumble recoveries by defensive ends Simeon Rice and Ellis Wyms and once on an interception that cornerback Ronde Barber returned 92 yards for a game-icing touchdown. For a change, though, it wasn't just the defense that stole the game away. In an odd twist, the Eagles defense seemingly had no answers for the Bucs offense, which produced 308 yards, including 71 on what many said was a game-turning catch and run by receiver Joe Jurevicius.

That catch, made after Jurevicius missed an entire week of practice to attend to his ill newborn son, Michael, came near the end of the first quarter and set up a 1-yard Mike Alstott TD run. That capped the 96-yard drive. The drive marked only the fourth time in 71 tries that an offense has driven 80 yards or more and scored a touchdown against the Eagles. Before the day was out, though, the Bucs would do that again, driving 80 yards and scoring on a 9-yard Brad Johnson to Keyshawn Johnson pass late in the second quarter. ``When you can put together a 96- yard drive and an 80-yard drive against the Eagles at the Vet, you're like the Lone Ranger,'' Gruden said. ``Not too many people have done that.''

Not too many have made the Super Bowl, either. Finally, though, the Bucs have. After 27 years, the dream is finally a reality.