Eagles await the Bucs at Veteran’s Stadium

This is the third successive year the Eagles have blazed a path into the playoffs, striving for the Super Bowl. The Tampa Bay Buccaneers are in the postseason hunt for the fifth time in the last six years.

Familiar adversaries. Enduring, unfulfilled quests.

“They are who they are, and we are who we are,” Eagles cornerback Troy Vincent said Sunday, before he recited the names of several prominent players from both teams.

“We’ve all got one thing in common,” Vincent concluded, after watching the Bucs blow away San Francisco, 31-6, earning the right to travel to Philadelphia for Sunday’s NFC Championship Game. “We’ve never been to the Super Bowl.”

On Sunday, for somebody, that all changes.

The easy assumption around here is that it will be the Eagles, since they own four victories in the teams’ last four meetings, over three seasons, most recently grinding out a 20-10 victory at Veterans Stadium on Oct. 20. But the Tampa team that destroyed the 49ers on Sunday certainly looked like a formidable rival. And as Vincent and several others noted Sunday, the stakes between the Eagles and Bucs never before have been quite this high.

“It’s going to be a fight. They’re going to bring their brass knuckles and we’re going to have to bring ours, too, to match that intensity, because their defense is playing at a phenomenal level now,” Vincent said.

The Bucs, having gotten this far, can’t afford to worry about the fact that they’ve played three games at Veterans Stadium over the past three seasons, two in the playoffs, and have scored no offensive touchdowns. The clock is ticking for Mike Alstott, 29, and Warren Sapp, 30, just as surely as it is for Vincent, 31, and soon-to-be-28 Duce Staley.

“I know especially for myself, being a veteran, you just don’t know when you’ll be back in that position again,” Vincent said. “The window of opportunity, whether you’re a rookie or in your 12th, 13th, 14th year, that window closes.”

There were moments in the Eagles’ 20-6 NFC semifinal victory over the Atlanta Falcons Saturday when the Birds’ window of opportunity was looking perilously narrow; the underdog Falcons kept threatening to take charge of the game.

But the Eagles’ defense that has been responsible for Tampa’s inability to score here was just as harsh to the Falcons, when it mattered most. The Eagles’ D outscored Atlanta, 7-6, on Bobby Taylor’s 39-yard, first-quarter TD interception return.

Brian Dawkins, who authored one of the all-time blow-up hits on Falcons quarterback Michael Vick, said he was never all that worried, even though the Falcons kept piling up first downs and yards in the middle two quarters.

“I know there’s that thing of, `If you let a team hang around, there’s always a chance.’ Yes, there’s always a chance. But if you keep a team out of the end zone (you should win),” Dawkins said.

That is what the Eagles’ defenders do best. You can complete passes on them underneath, especially when the linebackers are worried about a QB such as Vick breaking off a huge run. But the closer you get to the Eagles’ end zone, the harder those completions are to find. To get into the end zone, there is a price to be paid, which was the message Dawkins delivered when he launched his helmet into Vick’s midsection, inadvertently launching Vick over the goal line with 3:48 left in the third quarter.

A holding penalty on Falcons guard Travis Claridge nullified the game-tying touchdown, and the Falcons ultimately got no points from the drive, thanks to Jay Feely missing a 37-yard field goal. Dawkins and Vick had to be helped up, and missed the next play.

“We wanted to make sure that he understood if he scrambled, he was going to get hit,” Dawkins said. “That kind of stuff wears on you after a while . . . We didn’t want to play like a lot of teams do against him, `mush rush,’ and `stay in your lane’ type of thing. We wanted to get after him, and if he got outside, so be it. Run after him, see if we can bring him down.”

Eventually, the Eagles’ offense found some traction, authoring a 75-yard TD drive that set the final score and settled any doubts about the effectiveness of Donovan McNabb, in his first action since he fractured his right fibula 55 days earlier.

Tampa’s defense, ranked first overall in the NFL and first against the pass, might take heart in the fact that the Eagles’ offense was anything but smooth on Saturday; still, Duce Staley ran for 152 yards on 24 carries against the Bucs back in October, Tampa’s defensive line looking overmatched by the Birds’ run-blockers.

“This game comes down to turnovers,” McNabb said Sunday, after the Bucs forced five, keying their rout. The Eagles had no turnovers Saturday, the first time in the 26-game playoff history of the franchise that has happened. “What team can eliminate turnovers and eliminate mistakes, that team probably will move on.”

Eagles coach Andy Reid, named NFL Coach of the Year this weekend by the Associated Press, agreed with McNabb.

“They took advantage of turnovers, is what they did,” Reid said after watching the Bucs advance. “They came out and made plays. The quarterback (Brad Johnson) played well, the receivers played well.”

Defensive end Hugh Douglas noted that the Bucs’ offense isn’t much like the Falcons’. Johnson is a pocket passer; Douglas injured Johnson’s ribs and ultimately knocked him out of their last encounter.

“(Saturday) I had to play a lot more disciplined than I’m used to playing,” Douglas said. Against Tampa, “I’ll get a chance to cut it loose somewhat physically, but I still have to play under control.”

Douglas and other Eagles downplayed the four successive victories over the Bucs, the notion that the Eagles feel they own Tampa.

Linebacker Carlos Emmons of Philly summed up the four Bucs-Eagles meetings.

“They come in every time thinking they’re the better team,” Emmons said. “We come in every time knowing where the better team.”