TAMPA, Fla. -- This Sunday, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers return to the NFC Championship Game for the first time in 18 years when they play the Green Bay Packers at Lambeau Field (3:05 p.m. ET, Fox), and nobody is more excited about it than the 2002 Buccaneers who came before them and were the last Tampa Bay team to get there.
Those Buccaneers defeated the Philadelphia Eagles 27-10 to win the franchise’s first and only NFC championship en route to a 48-21 Super Bowl XXXVII victory in San Diego. They watched from afar as this season's team first reached the playoffs for the first time in 13 years and then last week defeated the New Orleans Saints 30-20 in the NFC divisional-round game.
Hall of Fame linebacker Derrick Brooks beamed with pride as Devin White notched an interception and a fumble recovery. He then texted former teammate Shelton Quarles, who is now the Bucs’ director of football operations, with, “One more! One more!” Quarles got the same text from former defensive tackle Anthony “Booger” McFarland.
“The memories started to flow,” said Brooks, who's serving as the co-chairman of the Super Bowl LV Tampa host committee. “Just excited that they’ve earned the right to be in this position. I really, really can’t wait to see them play and look forward to them making history.”
While former quarterback Brad Johnson is ecstatic over the way Tom Brady is playing, former Bucs fullback Mike Alstott is gushing over the running game.
“I’m loving it. I’m digging [it]," Alstott said. “That one-two punch with [Leonard] Fournette and [Ronald] Jones -- they’re running hard, they complement each other ... . And then that wide receiver corps is loaded. ... It’s just a good time for the Bucs right now."
Brooks added, “We’ve all waited a long time to see this.”
‘They were screaming at us, talking about our moms’
Similar to this season's Bucs, who will face wintry conditions at Lambeau Field -- which currently call for a high of 28 degrees, a low of 12 and a 40% chance of snow -- the 2002 Bucs had to battle frigid temperatures in the 20s in Philadelphia. They became the first and only Buccaneers team to win a game in temperatures at or below freezing, and the first Buccaneers team to win a playoff game on the road.
Even more daunting, though, was the task of knocking off a No. 1-seeded, Andy Reid-coached team that featured 10 Pro Bowlers, including quarterback Donovan McNabb. The Eagles had beaten Tampa Bay four consecutive times in the past three years, including in the playoffs in 2000 and 2001.
“For us, it was kind of a nemesis with Philadelphia,” said Johnson, who had been sacked five times in the teams’ previous meeting and suffered cracked ribs. “You almost felt that was our Super Bowl.”
Former running back Michael Pittman remembers being in a hostile environment from the time the team's buses arrived. The Bucs were forced to stay in the same hotel as an Eagles pep rally.
“Everyone was flipping us off. Little kids on their parents’ shoulder flipping us off,” Pittman said. “They were screaming at us, talking about our moms, our wives ... but we had one agenda. We wanted to win that game.”
They watched as the Eagles prepared a special Super Bowl send-off party during their Saturday walk-through.
“They had a big banner at the very top. I’ll never forget,” Quarles said. “It [read], ‘The view of San Diego looks great from here.’ And I’m like, ‘They think they’ve already won this game.'"
'Triple Left, 83 Double Smash, X Option'
With just under 2 minutes remaining in the first quarter, the Bucs trailed 7-3, with only 69 total yards of offense. Johnson had already thrown an interception. But on third down, he found wide receiver Joe Jurevicius on a 71-yard catch-and-run that completely changed the game's momentum.
“Triple Left, 83 Double Smash, X Option,” said Johnson, describing a play with two corner routes and two flat routes, with Jurevicius lining up inside. The idea was to leave Jurevicius one-on-one against linebacker Barry Gardner.
Johnson almost audibled out of it.
Five days earlier, on Jan. 14, Jurevicius’ wife, Meagan, had given birth to their first child, Michael William. Born one month premature, he was diagnosed with sialidosis, a rare metabolic disorder that impacts cell function. Doctors had given him just a 2% chance to survive even two days.
Jurevicius had missed the entire week of practice and the walk-through as he stood vigil with his wife and newborn. Yet he joined the team late in Philadelphia, stunning teammates when he said, “Hey, my family wants me to play.”
Brooks told him, “Hey man, we’ve got your back.”
Jurevicius froze out Gardner with a stutter step. He then outran him and Carlos Emmons before Brian Dawkins brought him down at the Philadelphia 5-yard line.
"It was well documented what they were going through that entire week,” Brooks said. “For him to be the one to step up in that moment and make really, a game-changing play at that time -- it’s one of those moments where, ‘Hey, the stars are lining up for us.’"
Two plays later, Alstott barreled into the end zone to grab a 10-7 lead. Jurevicius would have just one catch that day, but it was, in many ways, the defining moment of his career, and the game.
“I’m not taking anything away from anybody, but I think it was the most important play of the game," Johnson said.
Michael William Jurevicius fought for his life for 70 days. He died March 24.
‘Veterans Stadium never sounded so good to me’
The Bucs led the Eagles 20-10 with 3:27 left in the fourth quarter but still needed to close out the game.
That's when cornerback Ronde Barber faked a blitz and baited McNabb into throwing a slant pass intended for receiver Antonio Freeman. Barber jumped the route, returning the pick 92 yards for a touchdown.
“I was right beside him running down the field and looking at their sideline, extremely quiet,” said Brooks, who considers it the greatest play in team history. “Veterans Stadium never sounded so good to me. Because there was dead silence! It sounded so sweet because it was dead silence, of disbelief."
“Everybody was jumping on the sideline,” Pittman said. “I was just looking for the guy, whoever had the NFC championship hats. I was like, ‘It’s over, baby! Let me go get my hat!’”
“You don’t get many moments like that, to celebrate like that,” Johnson said. “You almost felt like that was the Super Bowl than it was the actual real Super Bowl, because of how much emotion went into it."
Creating their own legacy
The Bucs are a different team today. The 2002 Bucs had a first-round bye and didn’t have to go on the road until that game in Philly. This season's team is led by Brady, who has won six Super Bowls already. These Bucs entered the postseason as a wild-card team and a fifth seed, needing to win at Washington and at New Orleans just to get here.
Brady emphasized that mental toughness would be a necessity given the elements.
“We’re not going up there thinking about how cold it is,” Quarles said. “We’re not playing the cold. We’re playing the Packers.”
But the pain from every injury tends to be magnified in the cold, as the 2002 Bucs were well aware. Johnson was still recovering from a lower back injury. Pittman had played nearly the entire season with a high ankle sprain.
“It’s real. But the ability to ‘lock in’ is key,” Johnson said.
Alstott has a remedy for the chilly temperatures: the chicken broth at Lambeau Field, which he developed an affinity for while playing in the old NFC Central.
“They have the best chicken broth ever,” Alstott said. “Before the game, after the game, at halftime -- they have the best chicken broth. I encourage them to drink that.”
His best advice? Make every play count, enjoy it and stay in the moment.
"It's the biggest game of your life," Alstott said. "At the time that they’re in in their career[s] -- it doesn’t matter if you’ve been to 10 Super Bowls or none -- it’s the biggest game because it’s the next game. And you have an unbelievable opportunity that’s never been done, to play in a Super Bowl game at your home stadium.”
'We don't play that game this week'
Coach Bruce Arians cautioned his players about looking ahead, even though they can see from their practice field the transformation of Raymond James Stadium with Super Bowl LV signage over the past two weeks, something team captain Lavonte David called "surreal."
“We don’t play that game this week,” Arians told them. “We play the Packers in the NFC Championship Game. If you start thinking about the Super Bowl, you get beat and [will] be packing your bags on Monday.”
“I love Bruce and how forward he is. I love it. What’s wrong with it? It’s called the truth, right?” Alstott said.
Arians has gotten his share of well-wishes from former players. So has David. But they can’t get swept up in nostalgia. They'll leave that to the ones who came before them, who can now enjoy watching a new generation of players following in their footsteps.
“When the Bucs win, they win,” Arians said. “[I am] really, really proud of the heritage they left. But this is about making names for ourselves now.
“I’m sure they’re going to enjoy it.”