Bucs rolling to NFC title game
TAMPA — With their quarterback on a roll and their coach disdainfully dismissing past playoff collapses, these are not the same old Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
At least that’s what the Bucs contend. On Sunday, they’ll get a chance to prove it.
Brad Johnson threw for two touchdown passes, and Tampa Bay forced five turnovers to rout San Francisco 31-6 Sunday in an NFC divisional playoff game. The victory advanced the Bucs to the conference championship game at Veterans Stadium in Philadelphia, where their season ended the past two years.
“We’re going to get on the plane and go,” first-year Bucs coach Jon Gruden said. “Whether it be the Vet or Walt Whitman Bridge, we’re going to be there.”
Against the 49ers, Tampa Bay (13-4) looked like a team that will be tough to stop. Johnson directed touchdown drives of 74, 77, and 52 yards on consecutive possessions, converting nine third-down situations in a row, and the Bucs’ characteristically dominant defense did the rest.
A week earlier, the 49ers (11-7) rallied from a 24-point deficit to beat the New York Giants. This time, they fell behind 28-6, then were shut out in the second half.
The Buccaneers advanced to the NFC title game for the second time in four seasons, but at Philadelphia they’ll face a daunting hurdle that tripped them up in the past.
The Bucs lost to the Eagles in the first round of the playoffs the past two seasons by a combined score of 52-12. In October, they lost at the Vet 20-10, totaling just 207 yards as Johnson was sacked five times. The Bucs haven’t scored an offensive touchdown in their past three games at Philadelphia.
Other history for the Bucs to overcome: They’re 0-6 on the road in postseason play and have been outscored 152-42 in those games.
“We looked at it all season that it was going to be between us and Philadelphia,” Johnson said. “We’re looking forward to it. If you’re going to have to beat them, it might as well be up there.”
Johnson’s fine play since late October gives the Bucs reason to believe they may finally have enough offense to reach the Super Bowl. After missing the final two games of the regular season because of a bruised back, the 34-year-old quarterback was in fine form against the 49ers, helping Tampa Bay control the ball for nearly 37 minutes.
Even a gash over the right eye that required half a dozen stitches couldn’t stop Johnson, who threw for touchdowns covering 20 yards to Joe Jurevicius and 12 yards to Rickey Dudley.
“Brad is going to throw to the guy who’s open,” Gruden said. “That’s what makes him a special player.”
Mike Alstott scored the other touchdowns on a pair of 2-yard runs, each time finding room behind All-Pro defensive tackle Warren Sapp, moonlighting as a tight end.
The Bucs’ defensive charge was again led by linebacker Derrick Brooks, the NFL defensive player of the year. He made an interception and recovered a fumble, two of the four turnovers by San Francisco quarterback Jeff Garcia.
“They’re a great defense,” Garcia said. “We ran into a wall today that we just couldn’t knock down.”
Noisy Terrell Owens was unusually quiet, managing just four catches for 35 yards. After the game, the All-Pro receiver smiled as he declined interview requests.
San Francisco failed to score a touchdown in a postseason game for the first time since a 49-3 loss to the New York Giants in the 1986 playoffs.
Notes: The high temperature Sunday in Philadelphia is expected to be 36 degrees. The Bucs are 1-21 when the temperature is below 40, but the lone victory was just last month in Champaign, Ill. … The 49ers were held to their lowest point total since Nov. 29, 1999 — a span of 56 games. … San Francisco allowed 69 points and 775 yards in two playoff games.