Bucs happy 49ers will be visiting on Sunday

Tampa Bay rested while San Francisco played nail-biter to advance

Pro Football

January 07, 2003|By Chris Harry | Chris Harry,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

TAMPA, Fla. - With his team entering a bye week, Tampa Bay Buccaneers coach Jon Gruden and his staff last week put aside the better part of a day and a half to study tape of their three potential divisional playoff opponents.

On Friday, the focus was primarily the Green Bay Packers, who were playing host to the Atlanta Falcons and were unbeaten in 13 games all-time at Lambeau Field. Done deal, right?

The Falcons, of course, pulled off a 27-7 upset Saturday night. They were headed for Philadelphia.

So the Tampa Bay coaches showed up at One Buc Place early Sunday and began poring over footage of the San Francisco 49ers, who were playing host to the New York Giants. With the Niners at home, the Bucs figured their time would be better spent focusing on the likelihood of Jeff Garcia and Terrell Owens advancing.

Next thing Gruden knew, the Giants led 38-14.

So, it was decided to study the Giants ... until the 49ers mounted the second-largest rally in playoff history for a 39-38 victory that earned them a trip to Raymond James Stadium on Sunday.

"Twelve cups of coffee later," Gruden said after yesterday's practice, "we're very proud to be playing the San Francisco 49ers."

He was equally pleased to have had the weekend off while his next opponent spent a season's worth of emotion in staging one of the most dramatic rallies in league history.

As thrilling as Sunday's games were - Pittsburgh also rallied in the final five minutes to defeat Cleveland - Gruden said Saturday's games should have been just as enlightening to any team with championship aspirations.

"I think the day before will get your attention just as much as [Sunday]. I mean, 41-0 and 27-7, with a home team getting knocked out," Gruden said. "Both days were great learning opportunities for everybody."

Great days to be sitting at home, too. Waiting.

"Watching all those football games, I was emotionally drained," quarterback Brad Johnson said. "You went from all the different extremes, thinking we were going to play Green Bay to the Giants to San Fran."

But as Johnson pointed out, the emotions involved in watching were far less taxing than of those individuals playing in a 25-point, come-from-behind victory. The 49ers (11-6) must refocus, prepare and hop a plane for a trip across the country to face a team that had the weekend off.

And a quarterback who hasn't taken a hit since Dec. 15.

"I feel very, very fresh right now," said Johnson, who missed the final two games of the regular season with a lower-back bruise but has taken every snap with the first offense since retaking the practice field last week. "I'm about as sharp as I've been all season long."

As it turned out, the Bucs (12-4) might have gotten the most favorable matchup available. Though San Francisco has the league's eighth-ranked offense, Tampa Bay will counter with a defense ranked first in the league overall and against the pass. On the other side of the ball, the Niners are a middle-of-the-pack defense (15th) and rate 22nd against the pass, which should put a smile on the face of both Johnson, the NFC's top-rated quarterback, and Keyshawn Johnson, his favorite receiver.

"This is what you play for," Keyshawn Johnson said. "I came here with the goal of winning a championship."

So much of the pre-game hype will focus on the impact Johnson and Owens have on their respective teams. But that hype will have nothing to do with the outcome.

It will fall on the secondaries to prevent either from coming up with game-breaking plays. The Giants were unable to contain Owens, who caught nine passes for 177 yards and two touchdowns. He was the go-to guy for Garcia time and again during their rally.

"They're a great football team," cornerback Ronde Barber said. "They struggle a little bit on defense, but they can score points. They're on top of the world right now, and rightfully so. To come back from 24 down in a quarter and a half? Man, that's uncalled for, if you ask me."

But it happened, and the 49ers' reward is a Bucs team that set a franchise record for regular-season victories and has been challenged to take that next step since the day Gruden set foot in team headquarters last February.

Tony Dungy was fired for failing to get out of the wild-card round the past two seasons. Gruden's first team already is into the second round, poised to play host to the fifth playoff game in team history. No more sitting around. The mission is clear-cut, the stakes high.

"You have to feel for the Giants. They had opportunities to make some kicks and win," Gruden said. "You have to feel for the 49ers and what a dramatic come-from-behind win that was. Same thing for the Steelers.

"And the day before, for Atlanta to get on an airplane and go to Lambeau and dominate the football game from start to finish. And the Jets, what they did [to the Indianapolis Colts]. It's a great league. Anything can happen. So you prepare hard, get ready and make some plays when you get your chance."

Chris Harry is a reporter for the Orlando Sentinel, a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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