The NFC number two seeds complete with the best Defense in the NFL with a competent Offense and unheralded journeyman Quarterback playing the NFC number one seeds in Philadelphia, conquerers of the Atlanta Falcons in the previous round, in the NFC Championship game with the winner going to the Super Bowl. No not this Sunday’s mouthwatering clash between Minnesota Vikings and the Philadelphia Eagles but an NFC Championship clash 15 years ago between the Eagles and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers when the Bucs finally buried their Philly hoodoo and shocked the overwhelming favourites at home to bring the curtain down on the grand old Veterans Stadium on the 19th of January 2003. A day which would go down in the annals of Philadelphia history as one of the darkest in the city’s sporting history and would be known as ‘Black Sunday’.
Having lost the previous seasons’ NFC Championship game on the road to the St Louis Rams, the Eagles were literally flying high in season 2002. Led by the mercurial Donovan McNabb, the Philly finished the season 12-4 and that was with McNabb missing six regular season games due to a broken ankle. One of those 12 wins was in week 7 when they man-handled the Tampa Bay Buccaneers at home as they always did during the early 2000’s. Having already knocked the Bucs out of the play-offs in 2000 and 2001 at the Vet, the Eagles were expected to keep the run going in the NFC Championship game especially when Tampa, at the time, had never won a post-season game on the road and the Bucs record of 1-22 in games with a temperature of less than 5 Degrees Celsius only added to the air of confidence in the City of Brotherly Love.
As for the Bucs, 2002 was the first season with Jon Gruden as Head Coach. At the time, the Bucs were regulars at the Post Season thanks to an utterly dominate defence. Three successive post season appearances weren’t enough to prevent firing Tony Dungy due to the inability of getting Tampa to the Super Bowl which was mainly the result of an anaemic Offense. The Bucs struggled to adapt to Gruden’s West Coast Offense in the early part of the season, however, when you have a Defense which was outscoring opponents on their own, the Offense had the luxury of time on their side to get used to their new scheme. As the season progressed, Tampa’s Offense began to click and they found themselves up against a familiar foe in the NFC Championship game.
The week 7 win by the Eagles over the Bucs may have inadvertently led to Tampa wining the NFC Championship game. As a livid Warren Sapp sat on the team bus after the match yet again furious that his team had been overrun by Philadelphia, Gruden told Sapp that it wouldn’t happen again. Gruden had noted the Eagles plays, their blitzes, their signals and if the teams were to meet later in the post-season then the outcome would be completely different.
“If it starts bad, just keep playing, we’ve got his game” was Gruden’s last words to his team as they left the locker room. Just as well as after Brian Mitchell returned the opening kick-off 70 yards, two plays later the Eagles Running Back Duce Staley took the ball into the end zone to put the Eagles ahead with less than a minute played in the game. The shell shocked Bucs responded with a field goal to reduce the deficit to four. After Philly had punted the ball on their next possession to pin the Bucs back on their own four yard line, the Bucs then drove the ball 96 yards with the Bucs battering ram of Mike Alstott scoring the go ahead touchdown. Part of this drive contained the biggest play of the game on a crucial third down as Bucs Wide Receiver Joe Jurevicius who caught a short crossing pass and took the pass 61 yards to the opposition face yard line. What makes this play more astonishing is the fact that the Bucs didn’t even know if Jurevicius was going to play in the game until the day before as the Wide Receiver had been in hospital with his wife the previous week as their newly born son fought for his life. Jurevicius after discussions with his wife, decided to play and as fate would have it, he would be involved in the biggest play of the game, as he caught the short pass form Bucs Quarterback Brad Johnson and ran like he had never ran before until he was knocked out of bounds at the five yard line. Two plays later, the ball was in the end zone as the mood in the stadium changed instantly.
Down 7-10 at home against the underdogs, the Eagles eventually tied things up with a field goal before Tampa then scored another touchdown on an 80 yard, 12 play drive to take a 17-10 lead in to the locker room at half-time.
In the 3rd quarter, the Eagles were thwarted on two drives thanks to initially a strip sack fumble by Defensive End Simeone Rice and then a similar play but this time by Bucs Cornerback Ronde Barber which kept the Eagles from closing the deficit. In fact the deficit was increased during this 3rd quarter thanks to a converted field goal for Tampa which gave the Bucs a 20-10 lead going into the 4th quarter.
With 15 minutes left to save their season, the Eagles put together a 73 yard drive which consisted of a ridiculous escape on 2nd down from Donovan McNabb as he managed to avoid at least three sacks as he scrambled around in the back field before passing to Antonio Freeman to get to the Bucs 10 yard line. With the game on the line and the Eagles driving the ball down the field, the game was set up for an epic finale until Ronde Barber then produced one of the plays of the game and one of the most iconic in Bucs history as he faked a nickel corner blitz and dropped back in coverage to pick off McNabb’s pass and returned the interception 94 yards to effectively kill off any hopes of a Philadelphia comeback, close down the Vet without a whimper and deliver the Tampa Bay Buccaneers to their first ever Super Bowl.
Philadelphia subsequently reached the NFC Championship game the following season but lost again at home, in their new Lincoln Financial Field Stadium to the Carolina Panthers. To demonstrate just how impressive that Eagles team of the early 2000’s was, they again reached the NFC Championship game for the fourth successive season as they finally overcame their opponents, the Atlanta Falcons, to finally make it to the Super Bowl for the first time since they played Oakland Raiders in 1981 in Super Bowl XV. Unfortunately, the outcome was the same as the Eagles again lost on the biggest stage of all but this time to the New England Patriots.
Can the Eagles not only win this weeks NFC Championship game against the Vikings? Two teams with a proud history but with no Super Bowl wins between them and the top two teams in this years NFC. This has all the credentials of a classic. If only Carson Wentz was playing……..
Image courtesy Buccaneers.com