Times Staff Writer

History means everything in this city, where the nation's laws and ideals were first inscribed on paper more than two centuries ago.

And the past has been present in every discussion over the past week as the Philadelphia Eagles prepared to face the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in the NFC championship.

The Eagles have won four consecutive games against the Buccaneers, with three coming in Philadelphia by a combined score of 72-22. Tampa Bay's postseason has ended at Veterans Stadium the last two years, by a combined score of 52-12.

Then there's the history of the Vet itself, which will conclude its 31 years of service as a football facility with today's game. It's such a maligned stadium that even during the wave of corporate naming and renaming that swept through sports in the 1990s, no company wanted to attach its name to it.

The local populace plans to cram those three decades' worth of insults into one last send-off, with particular venom emanating from the regular Joes in the 700 level who figure to be shoved out by the corporate set once the team moves to Lincoln Financial Field next season. The Eagles won the last conference championship game played at the Vet, 22 years ago against the Dallas Cowboys.

And any time the Buccaneers travel north in December and January there's as much emphasis placed on the weather report as the scouting report. They are 1-21 in games played when the temperature at kickoff is below 40 degrees. It should be sub-freezing today, with a chance for snow, and wind gusts up to 25 mph that will make the temperature feel as if it is 20 degrees.

The Buccaneers are talking tough. They have a history of doing that, too.

But they're getting to the point that they're about to determine their own historical niche.

There's no special place for teams that hang around the porch without ever crossing through the door. Will the Buccaneers be dismissed in the manner of, say, the Houston Oiler teams of Bum Phillips, Earl Campbell and Dan Pastorini?

These Buccaneers made it to the NFC championship game against the St. Louis Rams three years ago, losing, 11-6.

"It's a core group of guys that's been in this position before and really understands the situation that we're in and the opportunity that we have in front of us," defensive tackle Warren Sapp said.

Losing with the Super Bowl on the line "is an empty feeling and it's one you really can't describe," Sapp said.

They have a new coach, who at times seems to imply that Buccaneer history began with his arrival in 2002. Forget about the bright orange uniforms and John McKay, Doug Williams, Lee Roy Selmon, and everything else that came before.

"We are undefeated in cold weather; we are 1-0," Coach Jon Gruden said, referring to his team's 15-0 victory over the Chicago Bears on Dec. 29. "What happened 25 years ago, this is ridiculous.

"We are going to go out and play just as if we were playing in Florida and playing in great weather. We will not use it as an excuse."

Tony Dungy brought the Buccaneers to respectability, but there's a feeling in Tampa that Gruden can bring them to the Super Bowl.

It will take a more potent offense than the unit that showed up in recent playoff games.

"We created problems for ourselves," wide receiver Keyshawn Johnson said. "We didn't pick up certain guys in protection so it didn't give us an opportunity to let the quarterback deliver the football and we put ourselves in bad field position, threw an interception, didn't get our breaks as clean as we wanted to. Being in this offense now for several months, things are happening for us a lot faster and we understand a lot better."

Gruden, who apprenticed under Mike Holmgren in Green Bay, is two steps down the coaching tree from West Coast offense guru Bill Walsh. It took a while for his system to catch on in Tampa Bay, but quarterback Brad Johnson finished the season as the top-rated passer in the NFC.

However, of the two teams, the Eagles appear better suited to attack the opposition's defense and stop their offense.

They have a stronger, deeper running attack, led by Duce Staley, backed up by Dorsey Levens and, when necessary, quarterback Donovan McNabb.

McNabb has been a big reason why the Eagles have consistently found a way past the Buccaneer defense, which allowed the fewest yards and points per game this season.

"There's no weakness to his ballgame," Sapp said. "Most quarterbacks, you say, 'Keep him in the pocket, he can't read the coverage.' But that's one thing that [Eagle Coach] Andy Reid and their coaching staff have done since we saw him in '99, is teaching him how to play the position. We've got our work cut out for us."

The interior of the Eagle offensive line, guards John Welbourn and Jermane Mayberry and center Hank Fraley, has neutralized Sapp. The Eagles can trot out the league's best secondary to counter Tampa Bay's pass-oriented offense.

But the difference between these two teams is not that great.

"You're talking about two teams sitting here at 13-4, the top defenses in the National Football League and the team with the best defense will win the game," Eagle cornerback Troy Vincent said. "It's not going to come down to the offense. It's going to come down to the defenses."

Putting the onus on the defense would appear to play to Tampa Bay's strength. So why is there such lingering doubt, from Philadelphia to the sports books in Las Vegas, that the Buccaneers can win?

It must be the history, including the statistic that the NFC team guaranteed home-field advantage throughout the playoffs has reached the Super Bowl seven of the last 10 seasons.

This year, the team with that privilege is the Eagles.

"I'm living for today, not yesterday," Keyshawn Johnson said. "The biggest thing is that I'm not trying to lose again."

"We have an opportunity and we are 60 minutes away from going to the Super Bowl," safety John Lynch said.

That's what lies ahead -- if they can just escape everything that's in the past.

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