The Tampa Bay Buccaneers had to make one last stop at their house of horrors before proceeding to football's promised land. Then the journey took an unexpected detour to the Emerald City.
A franchise whose story had been filled with disgrace or disappointment can add the happy ending of Super Bowl XXXVII this season, after the Buccaneers won the NFC championship game Sunday against the Philadelphia Eagles, 27-10, in the last NFL game played at Veterans Stadium.
"It's kind of like that movie, 'The Wizard of Oz' ," first-year Tampa Bay Coach Jon Gruden said. "Ding-dong, the witch is dead. We won a cold game again, a road playoff game and we scored a touchdown here at the Vet. So hopefully some of those stories will go away."
Now the only story that won't go away before Super Bowl Sunday is the juicy plot of Gruden facing his former team, the Oakland Raiders.
Gruden's Buccaneer team bears no resemblance to the previous ones, which lost the first 26 games after their inception in 1976, which hadn't won a game played in temperatures below 40 degrees, hadn't won a playoff game on the road, hadn't won in two previous trips to the NFC championship.
"Our whole thing was making people believe," said wide receiver Keyshawn Johnson, who scored Tampa Bay's second touchdown. "No one really believed. If you looked at it, everybody picked [the Eagles]. That always happens. It just does, for whatever reason."
It might have to do with the fact the Buccaneers had lost their last three games in Philadelphia (including playoff games the last two seasons) while failing to score a touchdown on offense. Or the fact that their first cold-weather victory after 21 defeats came Dec. 29 against the sorry Chicago Bears.
But they chose to follow the precedent set in recent conference championship games.
"The last several years," Johnson said, "Think about it: Road team, Baltimore. Road team, New England. Road team, Atlanta. They all went to the Super Bowl."
The 26-degree temperature at kickoff didn't pose as much of a threat to the Buccaneers as the fact that Philadelphia's Brian Mitchell returned the kick 70 yards. Duce Staley scored on a 20-yard run two plays later and Tampa Bay trailed, 7-0, 52 seconds into the game.
Even though the Buccaneers answered with a field goal by Martin Gramatica to soften the blow, they still had to show they could put the ball in the end zone.
They accomplished that on their third possession, a 96-yard touchdown drive that ended with a one-yard run by Mike Alstott. The Buccaneers added an 80-yard touchdown drive in the second quarter and held a 17-10 lead at halftime.
With quarterback Brad Johnson completing 20 of 33 passes for 259 yards and executing a deft game plan that capitalized on passes to the running backs and tight ends, the Buccaneers shed the offensive woes that kept them from advancing under former coach Tony Dungy.
A question to Gruden about whether Sunday's game proved that the offense was viable prompted a response reminiscent of former Colt coach Jim Mora's assessment of his team's playoff prospects.
"Viable?" Gruden said. "Hell, we just won at the Vet. We had two drives go 80 and 96 yards against the Eagles. Viable? I would say that's viable."
Philadelphia's offense was ... the opposite of viable. The Eagles' 10 points were due largely to great field position; they covered a total of 52 yards on the two "drives." For the day they converted five of 16 third downs.
A disconsolate Coach Andy Reid took a large share of the blame.
"It's my responsibility for us to perform better in this game, and I didn't get that part done," he said.
It's hard for the coach to do anything when the star quarterback plays as badly as Donovan McNabb did. McNabb threw low, threw behind his receivers, threw too long and flat-out missed open receivers. He finished 26 for 49 for 243 yards with an interception.
"I'm very critical of my play," McNabb said. "And I know that I could have made a lot more plays out there, executed a little bit better and put us in a greater position to score."
Philadelphia fans, who have booed everyone from Santa Claus to Sunday's halftime act Ashanti, began booing the home team during the third quarter.
The Eagles finally appeared to have things going late in the fourth quarter. Trailing by 10 points, McNabb moved the Eagles to the Tampa Bay 10-yard line with 3 1/2 minutes remaining.
Then he tried to hit Antonio Freeman on a slant pattern. He didn't see Tampa Bay cornerback Ronde Barber, who stepped in, intercepted and took it 92 yards for the back-breaking touchdown.
So this was how the 31-year football history of Veterans Stadium would end. Not with one loud raucous roar, but in silence.
The place turned library-quiet as Barber ran down the field.
"Considering it was this stadium, dealing with these fans the way we've had to deal with them the past two or three years, it was a pretty sweet feeling," Barber said.
And it was a reminder that these Buccaneers are still a defense-first squad. The Buccaneers felt everyone had rushed to praise the Eagle defense -- with its three Pro Bowl-bound defensive backs -- and forgotten about them.
Barber isn't going to the Pro Bowl. But he and the Buccaneers are on their way to the Super Bowl.
"He can take a trip to Hawaii from San Diego," Tampa Bay defensive end Simeon Rice said. "From sunny San Diego."
The Buccaneers are finally out of the cold.
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Philadelphia ran effectively and relied less on the passing of Donovan McNabb in two games against Tampa Bay before Sunday's NFC championship game, in which the Eagles moved away from that strategy against the Buccaneers:
*--* EAGLES' EAGLES' PASSING RUSHING Date Game Att Yds Per Att Car Yds Avg Outcome Jan. Wild card 25 194 7.8 29 148 5.1 Eagles, 12, 31-9 2002 Oct. Reg. 25 127 5.1 34 159 4.7 Eagles, 20, season 20-10 2002 Jan. NFC champ 49 243 5.0 21 80 3.9 Buccaneers 19, , 27-10 2003
Note: All games played at Philadelphia