There are times when words are insufficient in describing a feeling of such adulation that you have to pinch yourself to believe it to be true.
After two consecutive years of being unceremoniously dumped out of the playoffs by the Philadelphia Eagles, the Bucs were back at the Vet - for the final game at the Vet - where they had already been spanked earlier in the season - with one thing on their minds, advancing to the Super Bowl.
For most, including many Tampa Bay fans, it wasn't expected to be a good day. Even though the Bucs seemed to be much more potent under Jon Gruden and the defense was playing some of it's best ball in franchise history it was still the Eagles, in the cold, at the Vet.
It was supposed to be a party for the Eagles fans. They were going to send out the old girl in style, with their beloved green clad warriors finally making that trip to the Super Bowl.
It started in a similar fashion to so many other beat downs the Bucs received at the hands of the city of brotherly love.
Was it manifest destiny? History delivering a cold, calculated repeat?
Not on this night. This star filled tapestry twinkled with tears of joy that would flow in Central Florida as 26 years of ridicule, jokes and mockery were washed away.
On this night, the great trio of Derrick Brooks, Warren Sapp and John Lynch would finally get their just deserts. Jon Gruden would fulfill his promise and the king's ransom the franchise paid for his services.
Rocky Balboa was knocked out. Long live Captain Fear.
It started like so many other debacles for the Buccaneers in Philadelphia. Eagle returner Brian Mitchell took the opening kickoff 70 yards to the Buccaneers 26 yard line. Two plays later, Duce Staley carved through the Bucs' defense like warm butter, waltzing into the endzone for an easy 20 yard touchdown run. The Vet exploded in jubilation.
58 seconds into the ballgame, the Bucs were losing in Philly again.
Rather than collapse into the fetal position, this time the Bucs struck back. It was a methodical drive that went just 37 yards in 9 plays but when Martin Gramatica drilled that 48 yard field goal to cut the Eagles lead to 7-3, it felt like a major accomplishment.
Still, the first quarter remained a shaky affair for Tampa Bay. After the defense forced a three and out, Bucs QB Brad Johnson tossed up a dying quail that was intercepted by Philly corner Bobby Taylor.
The Eagles would drive to the Bucs' 32 yard line but rather than attempt a long field goal, Philadephia coach Andy Reid elected to try and pin the Bucs in with a punt. It worked, as Tampa Bay began their third possession of the game from inside their 5 yard line.
The Bucs played it conservative at first - plowing Alstott ahead for consecutive six yard runs. After an incompleted pass, Johnson then hit McCardell for a short gain out to the 24.
Then - in one play - the game changed. Johnson spotted a perfect match up with wide receiver Joe Jurevicius against the slow footed Eagles linebacker Barry Gardner. Jurevicius was dealing with a critical illness with his newborn baby. The Bucs weren't sure if he was even going to play.
You Go Joe. The words of screaming Gene Deckerhoff echoed as Jurevicius took the pass from Johnson, streaked across the middle of field and raced down the sideline for 71 yards. Some remarked it was the fastest they've ever seen Joe Jurevicius run. Perhaps his son's spirit gave him an extra push. Sadly, he wouldn't survive.
The huge play set the Bucs up first and goal at the Eagles five. What else would there be but Alstott up the gut?
Two plays later, Alstott plowed into the endzone and the Bucs stunned the world with a 10-7 lead. The Tampa Bay sideline exploded. No, they would not go quietly into the night playing the role of the Washington Generals to the Eagles' Harlem Globetrotters.
The teams slugged through the second quarter, each exchanging punts until finally a shanked punt by Bucs punter Tom Tupa put Philadelphia within striking distance.
The Eagles would get no closer than the Tampa Bay 12, settling for a David Akers 30 yard field goal and a tie game at 10.
Philadelphia putting points on the board seemed to wake up the Bucs' offense. Brad Johnson engineered an 80 yard drive in 12 plays to wrap up the first half. On the final play of the drive, Johnson would connect with Keyshawn Johnson on 9 yard score, giving the Bucs a 17-10 advantage they would take into intermission.
Both defenses would stiffen for the second half, neither giving up an inch until late in the third quarter when Brad Johnson guided the Bucs back down the field and got his team into Gramatica field goal range. Martin was happening a Pro Bowl caliber season and he drilled the 27 yard field goal to extend the Bucs lead to 20-10.
Donovan McNabb and the Eagles wouldn't quit, though. With 6:31 remaining in the ball game, McNabb began an amazing drive that saw him escape the grasp of several Buc defenders and make some Michael Vick-type miraculous plays.
The Eagles had driven to the Tampa Bay 10 yard line. If they got points, it would make the last 3:27 of this one a nail biter.
Instead, one tiny cornerback from the University of Virginia said no. Ronde Barber tricked McNabb into thinking Antonio Freeman was wide open. As soon as the ball left his hands, McNabb knew he made a terrible mistake.
Barber stepped in front and raced 92 yards to glory.
Go Home Eagle Fan! The Tampa Bay Buccaneers were headed to San Diego and Super Bowl XXXVII.
"For some of us, like me and Brooks, it's like we've come full circle," Bucs Pro Bowl DT Warren Sapp said after the game. "We both won our first game ever as Bucs here at the Vet [in 1995], and now we're going to San Diego, where one day we decided we had to do something about this franchise's image."
Roy Cummings of the Tampa Tribune relayed what Sapp was referring to, "That fateful day in San Diego was in 1996, prior to what was then a rare 25-17 Bucs victory. As Sapp and Brooks sat in their hotel room preparing for the game, ESPN's Chris Berman ripped into their team, calling them ``the Yucks'' and insulting Sapp and Brooks to the point where they vowed to forever alter people's perception of them."
"It's kind of like that movie, `The Wizard of Oz,' " Gruden crowed after the game, "Ding, dong, the witch is dead. We won a game in cold weather; we won a road playoff game and we scored a touchdown here at the Vet. Hopefully some of those stories will go away now."
One more opponent remained....one Gruden was very familiar with.