The Agony of Victory


If you measure them strictly by the decibel level of their words, this one's not even close. The Philadelphia Eagles' tight-lipped defense is no match for Warren Sapp and his trash-talking posse.

Eagle return man Brian Mitchell, not the tight-lipped defenders, was the one to take issue with Sapp's venomous statements about Veterans Stadium this week. Sapp said the stadium is "a [expletive] of a place, my mother can't even come." The Tampa Bay Buccaneers' equally loquacious defensive end, Simeon Rice, said the Bucs are "going to blow the place up."

"They're going to do their talking, but we're not going to be intimidated or back down from it," Mitchell said. "If anybody here wants to send it down to them, that's on me."

Mitchell taunted Sapp further on his Tuesday night radio show by referring to him as Warren Sackless because of his struggles against the Eagles' offensive line during the Bucs' four-game losing streak to Philly.

But Mitchell's teammates have opted out of any name-calling, especially Philly's defenders. When it comes to the war of words, they concede defeat.

"The way I was raised, if you're good, you don't have to talk about it," Eagle defensive tackle Corey Simon said. "You just go out and do your job."

Eagle linebacker Ike Reese said, "We'll do our talking on Sunday."

He's talking about action, not words.

The way Reese figures it, defense will have the biggest say in which team plays in Super Bowl XXXVII in San Diego. He hopes the Eagles win the most important argument: on the scoreboard.

The Buccaneers have the NFL's No. 1-ranked defense and looked dominant in dispatching the San Francisco 49ers, 31-6, in last Sunday's divisional playoffs. The Eagles had the fourth-ranked defense and were equally proficient in shutting down Michael Vick's Atlanta Falcons, 20-6.

"They're kind of like our measuring stick," Reese said of the Tampa Bay defense. "Everybody always mentions them as being the best, but we think we're one of the young and up-and-coming defenses, too."

The Eagles' defense has had its way against the Buccaneers in their last four games. Incredibly, the Bucs have failed to score an offensive touchdown in their last three trips to Veterans Stadium, dating to the 2000 playoffs. No wonder they want to blow the place up. In Philly's 20-10 win this season, the Buccaneers' touchdown came on Derrick Brooks' fumble return.

"All the points we scored, all the times we've stopped them, we can't bring that to the game on Sunday," Eagle Pro Bowl cornerback Bobby Taylor said.

But if the Eagles win and make the Super Bowl for the first time since the 1980 season, defense will probably be the reason. Yes, quarterback Donovan McNabb has returned from a broken right ankle, but he admits he wasn't able to make all the right moves in the 20-6 win over Atlanta. Thankfully for McNabb, the defense continually smothered the scrambling Vick.

The defense will have to stay good against a Tampa Bay offense that has improved substantially since the teams last played. Quarterback Brad Johnson has 18 touchdown passes and only two interceptions in his last seven games, and the Buccaneers are 6-1 in that span, averaging 27.2 points. But no defense Johnson faced in that streak was comparable to Philadelphia's. Throw in the fact that temperatures are expected to be in the mid-20s and the task is even more imposing. The Buccaneers are a miserable 1-21 when the temperature at the start of a game is 40 degrees or below.

"I'm looking forward to it," Johnson said. "There's no better environment, no greater challenge than what we're getting ready to face. They've dominated us the last two or three times we've played, so if you're going to win it, you might as well win it up there."

The Buccaneers' playoff hopes ended the last two years at the Vet, which will be imploded after the Phillies' 2003 baseball season to make room for a parking lot next to the Eagles' new stadium. The Eagles outscored the Buccaneers, 52-12, in those two games. After last year's 31-9 loss in the divisional playoffs, the Buccaneers fired coach Tony Dungy and eventually replaced him with Jon Gruden.

The score doesn't figure to be that lopsided this time. Not with these two defenses. For all we know, it could be a 7-3 game.

"That would be fine with me, as long as we get the win," Eagle defensive tackle Darwin Walker said. "People think touchdowns sell tickets, but to me, I love a great defensive battle. This will be two great defenses going head to head."

One is simply louder than the other.

"We don't need to talk," Eagle defensive end N.D. Kalu said. "We just want to prove how good we think we are with our play, not our mouths."

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