The Tampa Bay Buccaneers were looking to take the next step. Tony Dungy had built a terrific defense and turned a previously woeful franchise into a playoff team. But the Bucs were coming up short in the postseason. To juice it up, Tampa Bay went and hired Jon Gruden away from the Oakland Raiders. Dungy certainly landed on his feet in Indianapolis. But for the short-term, Tampa Bay was the big winner—capturing their first Super Bowl championship—and ironically, doing it against Gruden’s old team from Oakland.
Tampa’s defense was still the best in the league, with linebacker Derrick Brooks winning Defensive Player of the Year. Simeon Rice, with 15 ½ sacks at defensive end, and the great Warren Sapp at defensive tackle, were both 1st-team All-Pro. Ronde Barber, the future Hall of Fame safety, was in the secondary.
The Buccaneer offense was subpar—only 18th in the league for points scored. But 34-year-old Brad Johnson played mistake-free football. Mike Alstott was one of the game’s best fullbacks and Keyshawn Johnson gave Johnson a weapon on the outside.
Realignment came to the NFL in 2002, and the Bucs were placed in the newly created NFC South. Their top challenger proved to be the Atlanta Falcons. The Falcons had a combination of an old-school veteran coach in Dan Reeves and a quarterback that was very much new-school—22-year-old Michael Vick electrified the league with his ability to both pass and run. Atlanta was a top-5 offense and a top-10 defense.
The Falcons made the playoffs, although the Bucs beat them twice, and Tampa Bay took the division title with room to spare. The real race for Tampa was to get homefield advantage in the playoffs. And the bar in the NFC was high—the Bucs, along with the Philadelphia Eagles and Green Bay Packers, were the three best teams in all of football.
Philadelphia played the second-best defense in the NFL behind Tampa, and the primary reason was a fantastic secondary. Cornerback Brian Dawkins and safety Troy Vincent were each 1st-team All-Pro, while Bobby Taylor intercepted six passes. Up front, Hugh Douglas was a Pro Bowl pass-rusher.
The Eagle offense was pretty good too, with a young Donovan McNabb having a Pro Bowl season and Duce Staley running for over 1,000 yards. The Eagles got a challenge from the New York Giants within the NFC East, but the Giants were too flawed offensively. While Tiki Barber ran for over 1,400 yards and Amani Toomer racked up 1,300-plus yards receiving, the New York offense still ranked just 22nd in the league. While a really good defense, led by defensive end Michael Strahan, got the Giants in the playoffs, Philadelphia comfortably took home the East.
Green Bay’s success was fueled by a balanced offense led by the great Hall of Fame quarterback, Brett Favre. Favre was one of several key Packer players to have a Pro Bowl season, joined by versatile running back Ahman Green, wide receiver Donald Driver, and tight end Bubba Franks. The Packers were never challenged in the new NFC North.
Tampa Bay, Philadelphia, and Green Bay raced through December for homefield advantage, and what were then two first-round byes. The Eagles knocked off the Bucs 20-10 in October. The Bucs won a hard-fought 21-7 decision over the Packers in November. But Tampa Bay stumbled in late December. On the final Saturday of the season, The Eagles lost a tough 10-7 game to the Giants. Suddenly, Green Bay was in the driver’s seat.
All the Packers had to do was win their finale on the road against the Jets and the #1 seed was theirs for the taking. But the Jets were hot, they were playing a win-or-go-home game, and Green Bay looked strangely flat. The Packers lost 42-17.
In one fell swoop, the Eagles were back in pole position, the Bucs got a week off as the 2-seed, and the Packers went from having the road to the Super Bowl go through Lambeau Field to having to play on wild-card weekend. That’s in addition to the AFC implications we’ll get to further down. That Packers-Jets finale of 2002 is on any short list of incredibly consequential regular season games.
The NFC playoff field was filled out by the San Francisco 49ers out the West. Terrell Owens delivered an All-Pro season, catching 100 passes for 1,300 yards from veteran quarterback Jeff Garcia. The 49ers opened the season by beating the Giants 16-13 on Thursday night, got a big win over the Raiders in November and captured the division title with a 10-6 record.
Across the bay in Oakland, the Raider offense kept humming, even without Gruden. At the age of 37, Rich Gannon won the MVP award, with a precision 68 percent completion rate. Gannon’s primary receiver was the greatest to ever play the game—Jerry Rice was still going strong and produced over 1,200 yards. Charlie Garner ran for over 900 yards and averaged five a pop behind All-Pro lineman Barrett Robbins and Lincoln Kennedy. The Raider offense was the second-best in the NFL. The defense ranked a solid sixth in points allowed, with another venerable Hall of Famer, safety Rod Woodson, showing he still had it.
Oakland swept their primary AFC West rival Denver. The Raiders blew out the Tennessee Titans, their primary challenger for the top seed in the AFC. Oakland got big prime-time wins over the defending champion New England Patriots, and the Jets. And at 11-5, the Raiders earned homefield advantage throughout the playoffs.
The AFC South had a good race between the Titans and the Colts, now with Dungy at the helm. Dungy got the Indy defense to rank seventh in the NFL. Oddly, the offense—even with 26-year-old Peyton Manning having a Pro Bowl year, Marvin Harrison setting a new single-season record with 143 catches, and Edgerrin James rushing for nearly 1,000 yards—only ranked 17th.
And that gave the Titans their opportunity. Tennessee had the versatile Steve McNair at quarterback, throwing to Derrick Mason and handing it off to Eddie Georgie. The Titans won both games against the Colts, knocked off the Eagles and the playoff-bound Pittsburgh Steelers and grabbed the 2-seed with an 11-5 record of their own. Indianapolis finished 10-6 and took the top wild-card.
The Steelers had gotten off to a terrible start. After helping Pittsburgh reach the AFC Championship Game in 2001, quarterback Kordell Stewart’s career spiraled downhill, and he was replaced early on by Tommy Maddox. The veteran backup took over in October and had the year of his life. Wide receivers Hines Ward and Plaxico Burress combined for over 2,400 yards. Pittsburgh got All-Pro campaigns from Alan Faneca up front and Joey Porter at linebacker. They won a big Monday Night game over Indianapolis, got the aforementioned MNF win over Tampa Bay down the stretch, finished 10-5-1 and won the AFC North.
In words that have been rarely spoken since the late 1980s, we can also say that the Cleveland Browns stepped up with a nice year. Led by the league’s 10th-ranked defense, the Browns got a September win over the Titans, an October win over the Jets and when Cleveland closed the year by knocking off Atlanta 24-16, they got to 9-7, won the tiebreakers and snagged the 6-seed in the AFC playoffs.
It was the AFC East that produced the most exciting division race. The Patriots, with Tom Brady in his second year as a starter and riding high off their stunning Super Bowl title a year ago, got off to a good start. New England hammered Pittsburgh 30-14 on the opening Monday Night Game of the season. The Patriots destroyed the Jets 44-7. It looked like they were off and running.
But the New England defense would be suspect this year, ranking in the lower half of the league, and they began to slip. The Miami Dolphins had no such defensive issues. There was an All-Pro player at each level in South Beach—Jason Taylor at end, Zach Thomas playing linebacker and Patrick Surtain on the corner. Miami ranked fourth in the NFL for points allowed. And with Ricky Williams running for over 1,800 yards, the Dolphins were able to overcome quarterback instability and at least contend for the playoffs.
The Jets got efficient quarterback play from Chad Pennington, with his 22-6 TD/INT ratio, while Curtis Martin and Laveranues Coles had good years running and catching the football respectively. John Abraham was a Pro Bowler at defensive end.
New York’s season was the inverse of New England’s—the Jets started poorly, taking a 30-3 beating from the Dolphins one week after their blowout at the hands of the Patriots. But New York gained steam. They won a 13-10 decision over Miami on a Sunday Night in November. On another prime-time Sunday in December, in the penultimate week, the Jets beat the Patriots 30-17.
Going into the final game, Miami was 9-6, with New York and New England giving chase at 8-7. In the early afternoon time slot, the Patriots knocked off the Dolphins late, 27-24. That opened the door for the Jets-Packers game later in the day. All three teams ended at 9-7, but only New York went to the playoffs.
The Jets were on fire, and they took that right into Wild-Card Weekend against the Colts. New York hung a stunning 41-0 beatdown on Indy. If you’re scoring at home, this means the Jets, in win-or-go-home situations over a three-week stretch, had beaten Tom Brady, Brett Favre and Peyton Manning by a combined score of 113-34.
Green Bay couldn’t recover from the letdown of letting the top seed slip away. On a Saturday night in Lambeau Field, the Packers looked completely unprepared to play. Vick and the Falcons controlled play from the start, winning 27-7 in a game that was all but over by halftime.
Sunday produced real drama. The Browns, with backup quarterback Kelly Holcomb forced into action, and throwing for 429 yards, took a 24-7 lead in Pittsburgh. Maddox led the Steelers on a fierce comeback and pulled it out, 36-33, in the final minute.
But that was tame compared to what happened in San Francisco. The Giants roared out to a 38-14 lead in the third quarter. The 49ers stunned everyone with a comeback to take a 39-38 lead. New York answered by driving into field goal range for the final play. The Giants botched the snap. The officials botched it by missing a penalty on the 49ers. The league acknowledged the blown call the next day. But San Francisco had an epic win.
Maddox Magic in Pittsburgh extended for almost four more quarters in Tennessee to open Divisional Round Weekend. The Steelers and Titans were tied 31-31, with Pittsburgh on the cusp of field goal range in the final minute. But the magic ran out there. Maddox threw three incompletions. The Titans won it in overtime, overcoming four turnovers. Maddox never found the magic again and by 2004 the Steelers were drafting Ben Roethlisberger.
Vick played reasonably well that night in Philadelphia, but the Eagle defense locked up the Falcon running game and also picked off Vick twice, including a Pick-6 from Taylor. Vick’s passing numbers ended up being empty as the Philly defense led the way to a 20-6 win.
And the two teams at the heart of the coaching swap during the offseason made their statements on Sunday. Tampa Bay rolled past San Francisco 31-6. And Oakland finally brought an end to the sizzling stretch drive of New York, with a 30-10 victory.
In the lead-up to the NFC Championship Game, there was a focus on one simple stat—prior to this season, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers had never won a game—ever—where the temperature at kickoff was below 40 degrees. That streak had ended with their season finale win in Chicago, a game that got them the first-round bye and avoided a potential trip to Green Bay. But now the Bucs had to play a legitimately good team in the cold weather, and at a venue where they had been knocked out of the playoffs the last two years.
This year would be different. Tampa Bay took a 17-10 lead into halftime, and the defense took over down the stretch. Leading 20-10 in the fourth quarter, Barber stopped a last-ditch Eagle drive with an interception and a 92-yard return to the house. The final was 27-10 and the Buccaneers were going to their first Super Bowl.
The AFC Championship Game followed a similar dynamic, albeit more focused on offense rather than defense. Oakland led 24-17 at halftime, and then took over the second half. The 41-24 win gave the Raiders their first Super Bowl trip since the championship year of 1983.
In spite of Tampa Bay’s defensive dominance all year, their superior record, and their impressive win in Philadelphia, oddsmakers still saw Oakland as a 3 ½ point favorite. But the runup to the game in San Diego was a problem for the Raiders. Robbins, their All-Pro center, went on a bizarre drinking spree, likely fueled by mental health issues, where he disappeared and the team even wondered if he had been kidnapped. Robbins would be hospitalized.
Oakland already needed all hands on deck to deal with this Tampa defense, and now they were down a key man. How much it mattered to what happened on the field is another question entirely, because the Buccaneer secondary simply had a party. They intercepted Gannon five times and three of those picks were brought back for touchdowns. They got 124 yards rushing from Michael Pittman. The game was a blowout by halftime and ended 48-21.
It had been a long time coming for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. But in the end, they came through the cold, they vindicated their new coach against his old team, and brought home the Lombardi Trophy.