NFC preview

January 19, 2003|By Ken Murray

Today's title game

Tampa Bay (13-4) at Philadelphia (13-4)

Time: 3 p.m.

TV: Chs. 45, 5.

Line: Eagles by 4.

Buccaneers offense vs. Eagles defense: The Bucs know what's coming and what they have to do. Against a fierce pass rush, quarterback Brad Johnson needs to get the ball out quickly and his receivers need to handle the Eagles' press coverage. If Tampa Bay's offensive line and running backs can pick up the blitzes, Johnson has a chance to make some plays. The Bucs may try to spread the field to reduce the number of rushers the Eagles can have. Wide receiver Keyshawn Johnson could have trouble in his intermediate routes against the Eagles' Pro Bowl cornerbacks, but wide-out Joe Jurevicius has been good in the red zone for Tampa Bay. Given time, Brad Johnson can find the holes in the Eagles' defense, but he will not be able to create his opportunities by himself. And he won't have much time in any event.

Eagles offense vs. Buccaneers defense: Running back Duce Staley rushed for a season-high 152 yards in the Eagles' Week 7 win. The Eagles will likely attack the middle of the Bucs' pursuit defense with Staley and their big offensive line again. Tampa Bay's speed will make it difficult for the Eagles to get outside. Donovan McNabb gained only 4 yards rushing in that game and, because of an ankle injury, isn't as quick as he was back then. The Eagles like to slow down defensive pursuit with an end around or a reverse early, but had no success with either last time. The Bucs don't blitz as much as the Eagles, but watch defensive end Simeon Rice against left tackle Tra Thomas. Rice beat Thomas for a sack and fumble that led to a touchdown last time. Thomas has trouble against speed rushers.

Special teams: Eagles kicker David Akers missed only four field-goal tries this season and the Bucs' Martin Gramatica missed seven in more favorable conditions. Gramatica missed a 29-yarder in Philadelphia in the fourth quarter. The punting edge goes to Tampa Bay's Tom Tupa over Lee Johnson. In Brian Mitchell, the Eagles have the advantage in returns. Mitchell had 144 return yards against Tampa Bay in October, including a 47-yard kickoff return and a 29-yard punt return. The punt coverage unit is the worst part of the Eagles' special teams, ranking 30th during the regular season. Aaron Stecker averaged 25.2 yards per kickoff return for the Bucs.

Coaches: Tampa Bay's Jon Gruden and Philadelphia's Andy Reid were on Mike Holmgren's first staff in Green Bay in 1992, and coached together three years. They used to vie for Holmgren's attention in the play-calling process, and they would be the first coaches into the office in the morning. They've both been successful as head coaches. This is Gruden's second time in a championship game; he took the Oakland Raiders to the AFC title game in 2000, when they lost to the Ravens. Reid is in the NFC title game for the second straight year. The Eagles lost in St. Louis last season, 29-24, but had a chance late in the game.

Buccaneers' best chance to win: The formula the Bucs need to follow is create turnovers with their great defense and convert critical third downs on offense. They won't have many big plays on offense, but they'll need a few. They also need the early lead. They had it in October and couldn't cash in. They can't afford to play catch-up against the Eagles' attack defense. Most importantly, the offensive line must give Johnson time to get the ball off.

Eagles' best chance to win: Creating chaos with their blitzing defense is the surest route to victory. The Eagles aren't likely to bludgeon the Bucs' defense, so they'll have to be opportunistic. Special teams and defense are capable of setting up points. McNabb's third-down passing will be important. If he can scramble in the cold, so much the better. Philadelphia's defense will have to carry the day.

Injuries: Both teams are in good shape for the game. Tampa Bay guard Cosey Coleman tweaked an ankle last week, but should be OK. Jurevicius missed three practices last week with a family problem but says he will play. The Eagles may get limited time from defensive end Derrick Burgess (foot), but the defensive front has enough weapons that Burgess won't be missed.

Prediction: Gruden has tried to break many of the stereotypes about the Bucs from the past. Winning in Philadelphia in January may be the toughest. Unless Brad Johnson has a brilliant game, the Eagles should advance to San Diego with a chilling 13-10 victory.

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