DT Brad Culpepper and the Bucs' defense allowed just seven offensive touchdowns in eight 1999 home games
The last time Tampa played host to an NFL playoff game, it brought down the house. Literally.
Okay, Houlihan's Stadium was scheduled for demolition after the 1997 season anyway, but the final game played in the Bucs' previous haunt was a wild and wonderful afternoon, as the home team beat the Detroit Lions in a Wild Card game on 12/28/97, with the crowd whipped into a frenzy of support and glee.
Saturday's game against the Washington Redskins is the first playoff contest to be held in Tampa Bay's gleaming new Raymond James Stadium, and the decibel level is likely to rise with the stakes. This time, a trip to the NFC Championship Game is in the offing and the Bucs' home crowd has spent the past two years establishing itself as one of the most imposing in the NFL. That could bode well for the home team against the high-powered Redskins.
"(A home) crowd is big and over this past weekend you saw the effects of it," said Buccaneers Head Coach Tony Dungy, referring to the NFL's four Wild Card games, three won by the home teams. "Washington went up to play Detroit (in the regular season) and had a lot of problem with the noise and gave up sacks and a lot of penalties. This time Detroit had to go into Washington and it was just about reverse. Buffalo had problems (in Tennessee) and had to give up a lot of sacks and had the penalties. That's what happens and that's what you play for to get home field, so you can have your crowd become a factor. We think our crowd will become a factor."
There surely was some factor supporting the Bucs in Raymond James Stadium this year, as the team set a franchise record with a 7-1 home mark. Tampa Bay lost a bizarre 17-13 game to the New York Giants in Tampa in the season opener, but then reeled off seven straight home wins to close out the season. The Bucs allowed only 93 points in eight home games, an average of 11.6 points per game, and did not permit a single opponent to reach even the 20-point mark. The Bucs' eight opponents in Raymond James Stadium this year scored a combined seven offensive touchdowns.
Moreover, since Raymond James Stadium's opened its doors to begin the 1998 season, the Bucs have gone 13-3 at home, with every game a sellout and the team's signature pirate ship looming over the field.
The Bucs' final game in Houlihan's Stadium was Dungy's first playoff win at the Bucs' helm, but what it bought the Bucs was a trip to Lambeau Field to face the Super Bowl-bound Green Bay Packers. The Bucs won more Wild Card homefield advantage this year, taking the NFC Central crown and the first-round bye that went with it.
"t was good to have the bye," said RB Warrick Dunn, "and now it's good to play at home and have our fans as the 12th man. It definitely gives us the confidence that we can go out there and play with anybody. Hopefully, the crowd is hyped, and as players we have to be ready to play."
Of course, homefield advantage is nothing new in the NFL. The four teams that won the league's first-round byes this year, Tampa Bay, St. Louis, Jacksonville and Indianapolis, compiled a combined 29-3 home record in 1999, with all three of those losses occurring on October 10th or earlier. It's home records such as these that make the following statistic sound very reasonable: since the league expanded from two to three Wild Card teams per conference in 1990, 17 of the 18 NFC teams that have earned a first-round bye have won their Divisional Playoff Game.
Those are encouraging numbers, but no team wants to be the exception that proves the rule. DT Brad Culpepper certainly doesn't expect the Redskins to be intimidated by that nifty little stat. "I don't think their worried about the 17-1 record or whatever it is," said Culpepper. "That's something for (the media) to talk about. You don't think about it when you're in your three-point stance and people are barking at you on all sides. It's nice…we'd like it to continue, but the Redskins would like to get one on the other side of that record, too.
"Besides," Culpepper continued, "the only way to sustain (the crowd noise) is to play well. We can't get caught up in the hype. Maybe if it's the fourth quarter and we're up, then we can enjoy it a little bit." An eighth-year veteran and a locker-room leader, Culpepper knows the importance of the team retaining its focus despite the headiness of the situation. However, that doesn't mean that his fellow veteran teammates haven't felt the excitement building in Raymond James Stadium this season. A little of what they were saying in the locker room on Wednesday:
New starting left tackle Pete Pierson: "The homefield advantage has been great this year. The crowd has been fantastic. I expect they'll be more energetic than ever this Saturday."
P Mark Royals: "It's important for us to not get too caught up in the hype. Just because we're at home doesn't mean we're going to win. But it truly is exciting, and I know the people around here have waited a long time for this."
G Frank Middleton: "I wish Saturday was already here. I have so much energy in me, I'm ready to explode. I can't wait until Saturday."
LB Hardy Nickerson: "It's huge to be able to play here at home. It's very tough for people to come in here and play, and we have to take advantage of that."
Dungy: "It's fun. This is what it's all about and this is what you like to see. I think our area has had a great response, and that's one of the benefits of having a home playoff game: you get people fired up. Hopefully that will continue."