The Buccaneers beat the Eagles, 27-10, on January 19, 2003 and shut down their own personal house of horrors to punch a ticket to Super Bowl XXXVII. Tampa Bay went on to win that game, too, 48-21 over the Oakland Raiders, on another evening filled with lasting moments, including Derrick Brooks putting "the dagger in" with a clinching pick-six. That Lombardi Trophy-winning victory in San Diego is obviously the most important game in franchise history, but the previous Sunday in Philadelphia was its most cathartic. And one play, more than any other, provided that emotional release.
There's no need to be coy about it; any Buccaneers fan reading this text knows exactly the play that's being referenced. With four minutes left in the fourth quarter and the visiting team clinging to a suddenly tenuous lead, cornerback Ronde Barber intercepted a Donovan McNabb pass and returned it 92 yards for the clinching touchdown. The Eagles were poised to make it a 20-17 game; instead, seconds later, it was 27-10, the comeback was dead and Veterans Stadium, hosting its final game ever, was dead quiet.
"You couldn't hear a sound," said former Bucs safety John Lynch, a Pro Football Hall of Fame Finalist. "The stadium noise stopped. There was that sweet silence. There was nothing to say."
Barber didn't have to say anything to make his greatest play happen. He used his mind to diagnose the situation and his subtle actions to fool McNabb into the critical error. The Bucs' do-everything defensive back had already been a terror for McNabb and the Eagles all evening, with three tackles, a sack, a forced fumble and three passes defensed in the first three-and-a-half quarters. He had even lined up to field a punt and drawn a key penalty when he was interfered with while trying to make a fair catch.
"Big games, they put a lot on me, a lot of responsibility," said Barber in the Bucs' celebratory postgame locker room. "There's a lot of technique stuff that I have to worry about every play. When you put stuff on me, it just gives me more opportunities to make plays. And Donovan never learned to look the other way, so it was just a matter of time until I hit him with something big."
Indeed, Barber's fourth pass defensed was a knockout blow. It was also the result of a set-up from some early combination of punches. His strip-sack of McNabb in the third quarter had come on a blitz from just outside the left tackle after he lined up in the slot, something Barber was perhaps more adept at than any corner in the league. He had blitzed from that spot on several occasions that evening, and at one point McNabb read the blitz and threw to an open player in the exact spot Barber had vacated.
With four minutes on the clock and the Eagles lined up on the Buccaneers' 10-yard line, Barber counted on McNabb remembering that. Barber was again in the slot in the Bucs' nickel package. Prior to the snap, he took two big steps forward, putting him on the line of scrimmage, outside the left tackle again. McNabb saw that, by Barber's design. He purposely looked the quarterback directly in the eyes, trying to sell the blitz, not sure if he would buy it. McNabb bought it, and what he didn't see was the two steps back Barber took just before the snap.
That's four steps. Two more would get the job done, though Barber would still have most of the field to cover once the ball was in his hands.
McNabb reacted exactly as Barber had hoped, turning quickly to his left and firing a short, on-target pass to the waiting Antonio Freeman. Barber broke on it immediately with two quick steps but still couldn't get in front of the Eagles' receiver before the ball arrived. Instead, he had to extend his arms and snag the ball out of the air in front of Freeman. The catch was all hands, no body, a tough one, but Barber made it without breaking stride. Wide receiver Todd Pinkston and McNabb himself briefly gave chase, but no Eagle ever got close to Barber during his return. Instead, he ran right down the Philadelphia sideline, where some of the Eagles' players and coaches watched. Many others turned away as reality sunk in.
Barber knew what the moment meant, too. As he hooked a thumb over his shoulder and pointed at the nameplate on the back of his jersey, he knew he had clinched the franchise's first-ever Super Bowl berth. His big play meant that incredible defense was going to get one more chance to hunt.
"There comes a time when you realize you have the hopes and dreams of a lot of people on your shoulders, man," said Barber. "A lot of them are going to remember that play for that reason."
Barber had surprisingly been left off the Pro Bowl roster in 2002 despite turning in another fantastic season on Tampa Bay's top-ranked defense. He had another pick-six in the Bucs' playoff win over San Francisco, though the touchdown part of the play was called back on a penalty earned by one of his teammates. During the regular-season, Barber even made a critical interception off Brett Favre in a win over Green Bay using only one hand. The other one was in a cast thanks to the broken thumb he had suffered the week before.
Barber earned his share of Pro Bowls and other awards during the course of his 16-season playing career, all of it in Tampa. He is the only player in NFL history to record at least 40 interceptions and at least 25 sacks, and he's the only cornerback ever to start 200 consecutive games. He may eventually end up with a bronze bust in Canton.
Despite all of that, there is absolutely no doubt that Ronde Barber's greatest moment as an NFL player, and perhaps the most unforgettable turn of events in franchise history, occurred in Philadelphia on January 19, 2003, exactly 15 years ago as of Friday. It might even be the Buccaneers' greatest moment ever.