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Bucs rout Niners, now meet Eagles

SHARE Bucs rout Niners, now meet Eagles

TAMPA, Fla. — The Tampa Bay Buccaneers proved their offense can be just as dangerous as their league-leading defense.

Brad Johnson returned from a monthlong layoff to throw for 196 yards and two touchdowns, and Tampa Bay shut down Jeff Garcia and Terrell Owens to beat the San Francisco 49ers 31-6 on Sunday.

The victory sends Tampa Bay to Philadelphia for next Sunday's NFC championship game against the Eagles, who ended the Bucs' season in the first round of the playoffs at Veterans Stadium the past two years.

The Bucs have lost all six of their road playoff games, including three years ago in the NFC championship game.

At home against the 49ers, the Bucs did just about everything right.

"As soon as we got up 7-0, I said: 'Hey, our offense is rolling today, fellas," All-Pro defensive tackle Warren Sapp said. "The only thing we've got to do is stick a couple of three-and-outs on them."

The defense took care of that, then the offense had its way.

Mike Alstott scored on a pair of 2-yard runs, and Johnson threw TD passes of 20 yards to Joe Jurevicius and 12 yards to Rickey Dudley after missing the last two regular-season games with a bruised back.

Alstott's first TD snapped the Bucs' 12-quarter touchdown drought in the playoffs, a streak that began in an 11-5 loss to St. Louis in the 1999 NFC championship game. The Eagles outscored Tampa Bay 52-12 the last two years and beat the Bucs 20-10 in Philadelphia when the teams met in October.

"We respect Philadelphia this year," coach Jon Gruden said. "What happened last year is not going to hurt us or help us in any way.

"We realize we've got our hands full, but we're going to get on the plane and we're going to go, and we'll play any place, whether it be in the Vet or the Walt Whitman Bridge. We're going to be there."

NFL Defensive Player of the Year Derrick Brooks led another stellar performance by the league's most dominant defense. The Bucs forced four turnovers, and the six-time Pro Bowl linebacker had an interception and recovered a fumble that Simeon Rice caused with one of the team's four sacks.

After Johnson led three long scoring drives in the first half, Derrick Brooks intercepted Garcia at the 49ers 26 to set up Alstott's second TD for a 28-6 halftime lead.

Johnson completed 15 of 31 passes with one interception, and Keyshawn Johnson had five receptions for 85 yards.

The Bucs also rushed for 121 yards, most of them in the second half when the 49ers struggled to stop Alstott and Michael Pittman. Alstott finished with 60 yards on 17 carries, and Pittman ran for 41 yards, also on 17 carries.

The 49ers staged the second-biggest comeback in playoff history when they rallied from a 38-14 deficit to beat the New York Giants in the wild-card round. But there would be no rally against the Bucs, who allowed a league-low 196 points and became just the seventh team to hold opponents to fewer than 200 in a 16-game schedule.

Garcia completed just 22 of 41 passes for 193 yards and had three interceptions. All-Pro receiver Owens was held to four catches for 35 yards, a week after having nine for 177 yards and two TDs against New York. Tai Streets added five catches for 62 yards.

"We just couldn't get anything to go right," Garcia said. "They are a great defense. . . . We got down big at halftime, and then trying to struggle back, we completely got out of any sort of rhythm."

Jeff Chandler kicked field goals of 24 and 40 yards for San Francisco, which finished with just 228 yards total offense, including 62 on the ground. The 49ers (11-7) averaged nearly 23 points a game during the regular season, but the Bucs kept them out of the end zone both times they drove inside the Tampa Bay 10.

The Bucs (13-4) set a franchise high for victories, shared the NFL's best record and had the league's stingiest defense during the regular season. Still, they know their progress under Gruden ultimately will be determined by whether he takes Tampa Bay to its first Super Bowl.

The team's inability to score a touchdown in three consecutive postseason games cost former coach Tony Dungy his job. A wild, 36-day search for a successor wound up with the hiring of Gruden, who led Oakland to the 2001 AFC championship game before deciding he wanted out of his contract with Raiders owner Al Davis.

It cost the Bucs four high draft picks and $8 million just for the right to talk to Gruden, who signed a five-year, $17.5 million contract and welcomed the challenge of building an offense to complement a championship-caliber defense.