PHILADELPHIA – The Tampa Bay Buccaneers forgot about the cold and their past. They simply rolled up their sleeves and let their league-leading defense go to work.
Now they're off to sunny San Diego for their first Super Bowl — a long, sad history behind them.
After being stunned by a Philadelphia touchdown in the first minute of the NFC Championship game Sunday, the Bucs shut down Donovan McNabb and company to beat the Eagles 27-10.
"Nobody really expected us to win this game," said Tampa Bay coach Jon Gruden, in his first year with the team. "That fueled our enthusiasm to play."
Gruden and the Bucs will play his old team, the Oakland Raiders, or the Tennessee Titans next Sunday.
"One more to go," said Warren Sapp, the talkative Tampa Bay defensive tackle. "We ain't going for no vacation."
After the Eagles' early flurry, sparked by Brian Mitchell's 70-yard return of the opening kickoff, it was all Tampa Bay. The Bucs led 17-10 at halftime and stifled Philadelphia after intermission.
Mike Alstott was one of several Bucs wearing short sleeves, almost in defiance of the 26-degree cold at kickoff. The wind chill was 16.
Alstott scored on a 1-yard run at the end of a 96-yard drive in the first quarter that was highlighted by Joe Jurevicius' 71-yard catch-and-run.
Brad Johnson threw a 9-yard TD pass to Keyshawn Johnson in the second quarter, and Ronde Barber's 92-yard interception return with 3:12 left in the game clinched it after the Eagles had driven 73 yards to the Bucs 10. Martin Gramatica kicked two field goals.
"They were the better team," Eagles coach Andy Reid said. "They got after us. We didn't answer the bell on a few things.
"It's very disappointing. You come this far, 20-some odd weeks of football. You put yourself in position to strike for the Super Bowl and you lose."
The Bucs had lost three consecutive games at Veterans Stadium, unable to score even one offensive touchdown. They had only one victory ever in temperatures under 40. They were 0-6 in postseason road games.
And they had to face some of the league's toughest fans on slippery turf in the Vet's final NFL game.
They overcame it all, dismissing a dismal 20 years as the league's worst franchise that only changed direction when they discarded the orange jerseys they had worn from their inception in 1976 to 1997. Since then, Tampa Bay has missed the playoffs just once.
"Derrick Brooks, Warren Sapp and myself have been here the longest," safety and fellow Pro Bowler John Lynch said. "We wore the orange. We suffered through some tough years. We worked so hard for this opportunity but we told each other we're not done yet."
Brad Johnson finished 20-of-33 for 259 yards against a Philadelphia secondary with three Pro Bowl selections, allowing the Bucs to control the ball and the clock, especially in the first half.
The defense, meanwhile, totally controlled McNabb, who finished 26-of-49 for 243 yards in just his second game back after missing six games with a broken right ankle. Simeon Rice and Barber had sacks that ended potential rallies.
"We didn't want to give up the big play," Sapp said. (They didn't — Mitchell's return was against the special teams.)
"If we could do that, we'd have a real good chance of winning."
The Bucs started playing in 1976, lost their first 26 games, then made a brief run at the playoffs. Then, from 1983-96, they did not have a winning season and lost 10 or more games in 13 of those 14 seasons.
Until Dec. 29, when they beat the woeful Chicago Bears in temperatures in the 30s in Champaign, Ill., the Bucs were 0-21 when it was colder than 40.
And the past two years, they had been bounced from the playoffs in Philadelphia, where they also lost in October.
The chill didn't bother them Sunday, nor did the surroundings.
Tampa Bay silenced the Vet crowd with that long first-quarter drive. By game's end, the notoriously rowdy, fickle Philly fans were booing every incomplete pass by McNabb. Toward the end, few were left, heading for warmer surroundings early in the fourth quarter.
"To do it here is almost sweeter than doing it at home," Lynch said. "It's special because no one believes in us except for the guys in this locker room."
Mitchell's return of the opening kickoff and Duce Staley's 20-yard touchdown run two plays later gave the Eagles a 7-0 lead 52 seconds into the game. But that was the high point for Philadelphia.
"We came out early and set the tempo, then we did absolutely nothing," Eagles receiver Antonio Freeman said.
Indeed, Tampa Bay got three points back on its first possession on Gramatica's 48-yard field goal.
Then, after Lee Johnson's punt pushed them back to their own 4-yard line, the Bucs went on their 96-yard drive to take a 10-7 lead. It was their first offensive touchdown in four games in Philadelphia in the past three seasons.
The key play came on third-and-2 from the 24, when Brad Johnson found Jurevicius on a crossing route 15 yards downfield.
Jurevicius, who rejoined the team Saturday after going home for the premature birth of his son, broke away from Barry Gardner and ran to the Eagles 5-yard line.
Two plays later, Alstott went in from a yard out.
"I'm sitting on top of the world right now," Jurevicius said. "It's been a roller coaster of emotions all week, but my family needed me to do this. The way things are going, I think my son might be up walking now."
David Akers' 30-yard field goal midway through the second quarter tied the game at 10.
But the Bucs took the ensuing kickoff and went 80 yards in 12 plays, scoring from 9 yards out when Johnson (Brad) found Johnson (Keyshawn) just over the goal line on a third-down play.
The Eagles reached the Tampa Bay 24 in the final minute of the half, but McNabb was sacked by his old high school teammate, Rice, who knocked the ball loose and recovered the fumble.
The same thing happened on the Eagles' first possession of the third quarter, Barber knocking the ball loose on a corner blitz and Ellis Wyms recovering at the Philadelphia 47.
Gramatica added a 27-yard field goal with 1:02 left in the third quarter to make it 20-10 as the Eagles continued to have trouble moving the ball.
Then Barber made his big play and it was all over.
"We won a cold game again. We won a road playoff game and we scored a touchdown here in the Vet," Gruden said.
Who could ask for more?