The pregame production was pure Hollywood. There were laser lights and fireworks. There was Sylvester Stallone and a glitzy title. The Eagles called this re- enactment of last year's NFC title game Judgment Day. For the Bucs, however, this was just another day, one not unlike those they strung together en route to last year's victory in Super Bowl XXXVII. Or was it?
As they neared the end of their 17-0 victory, the Bucs seemed to rub the Eagles' noses in the new Lincoln Financial Field dirt, throwing and completing a pass to defensive tackle Warren Sapp, who lined up several times at tight end. ``We said when [tight end] Rickey Dudley got hurt that we were going lean on Warren Sapp in a couple more capacities this year, and we did that,'' Jon Gruden said. ``I thought he looked pretty good out there.''
Sapp wasn't the only Buc who looked good. Wide receiver Joe Jurevicius caught a pair of touchdown passes, including one in which he popped the ball up in the air and then cradled it in his arms as he fell to the ground. And after a slow start in which he connected on just two of his first seven throws, quarterback Brad Johnson eventually settled into his 2002 form, completing 25 of his final 29 passes for 212 yards and the two touchdowns to Jurevicius. ``That's a play we work on,'' Gruden said with a laugh of Jurevicius' fourth-quarter circus catch. ``But seriously, what can you say about a guy like Joe Jurevicius? He's a great player, especially in the red zone, where the coverage is tight. He uses his size and athleticism to play balls very aggressively. He made two unbelievable catches for us.''
He had to, because the Bucs' rushing effort was looking like 2002 as well - early 2002. On 31 attempts, the Bucs gained just 90 yards - or 2.9 yards per carry. But with the defense dismantling Philadelphia's offense, that didn't matter. In pitching its second shutout in as many regular-season games - the Bucs blanked Chicago in last year's regular- season finale - the defense limited the Eagles to just 245 total yards.
The defense did surrender 121 rushing yards, but it never allowed quarterback Donovan McNabb to settle into a comfort zone, sacking him three times while allowing him to complete just 19 of 36 passes for 148 yards. ``It was frustrating,'' said McNabb, who was probably frustrated the most on third down, where the Eagles converted just two of 11 attempts. It seemed like when we did get things going, we had some penalties that hurt us,'' McNabb said of the difficulties he had converting third downs. ``To have third and short [become] third and long, that plays into their hands.''
One McNabb pass did wind up in the Bucs' hands. On a first-and-10 at his own 23, McNabb had a pass batted away and then watched as it fell into nose tackle Anthony McFarland's hands. ``It was great having Anthony back,'' Gruden said. ``And really, what can you say about our defense? They just do a great job. They hustle, they tackle, and they're very stingy.''
They can smell a kill, too, and when they do, they hone in on their prey. They did that all of last year, and they did it again Monday in an effort that was meant to remind the Eagles who the Super Bowl champions really are. ``When we left Philadelphia [after a 20-10 loss last] October, we said never again,'' Sapp said. ``And we meant it. Once we got it rolling [Monday], we were looking for the shutout.''
The Eagles were looking for something much bigger. With a pregame show featuring a laser light display, fireworks and a live cheerleading effort by Stallone, this event had a playoff-like atmosphere from the very start. ``I've never seen a pregame like that,'' Gruden said. ``This place was juiced.''
It was even more juiced when the game started like last year's NFC title game, with the Eagles lighting up the crowd by getting a sizable return on the opening kickoff. But unlike the title game, the Eagles couldn't transform that return into points. In fact, they couldn't transform anything into points, a feat which earned them a healthy round of boos at the end of the half. By then the Bucs had built a 3-0 lead, the result of a 23-yard Martin Gramatica field goal and a defensive effort that left you thinking the Bucs may be better on that side of the ball this year.
The first indication of that came during the Eagles' first series. After Brian Westbrook's 47- yard return set the Eagles up at their own 46, the Bucs forced Philadelphia out after just three plays, the last of which was a sack of McNabb by Ronde Barber and John Lynch. The second indication of Tampa Bay's defensive dominance came during the Eagles' second series. After another 47-yard return, this one by punt returner James Trash, allowed the Eagles to set up at the Bucs' 16, the only yardage Philadelphia could gain came from a pass interference penalty by Lynch.
That gave the Eagles a first down at the Bucs' 1, but after three plays from scrimmage net the Eagles nothing, L.J. Smith dropped a Koy Detmer pass at the end of a fake field goal attempt to keep the game scoreless.
With the Bucs struggling nearly as much offensively as the Eagles, it wasn't until early in the second quarter that Tampa Bay scored, Gramatica giving them the edge with 3:09 gone in the period.
After a slow start in the second half, the Bucs moved the ball smartly down the field late in the third quarter, improving their lead to a 10-0 when Johnson hit Jurevicius with a 13- yard touchdown pass with 7:20 left.