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The NFL offseason is already heating up — we’ve had two big trades, and Blake Bortles has been taken off the quarterback market — but March 14 is when the real fun begins. That’s when free agency kicks off (4 p.m. ET), and it’s when the trades involving Alex Smith and Marcus Peters become official.

Over the next two weeks, our panel of ESPN NFL Insiders is taking a closer look at the upcoming free-agent market, answering questions on the biggest topics in the league.

We’re starting Monday with a deeper look at the Vikings, whose top three quarterbacks from 2017 — Case Keenum, Teddy Bridgewater and Sam Bradford — are all free agents. Minnesota also might be in the Kirk Cousins sweepstakes.

Which quarterback will take the most snaps for Minnesota in 2018?

Mike Sando, senior NFL writer: Keenum. We’ll have to see whether Bridgewater can make it through a full offseason, training camp and preseason and win the job. Once he does those things, he will have to do what might be the hardest thing for him to do, which is play the most snaps. So, while I think Bridgewater could be the most likely quarterback to re-sign with Minnesota, I’ll lean toward Keenum as more likely to play the most snaps, at least until we have more information.

Courtney Cronin, ESPN Vikings reporter: Bridgewater. I predict the Vikings will end up getting outbid in the Cousins sweepstakes, thus leading them to re-sign two of their pending free-agent quarterbacks. Though Minnesota might franchise tag Keenum, it would make sense to use its cap space to work out deals with Keenum and Bridgewater. The Vikings typically don’t have quarterback competitions in training camp, but given the unique nature of their situation, both Bridgewater and Keenum will have a chance to duke it out in camp. It might not be in the beginning of the season, but by some point in 2018, I believe Bridgewater will emerge as the starter.

Matt Bowen, NFL writer: Bridgewater. I expect the Vikings to explore the market for Cousins. But with the Jets, Broncos and possibly more teams jumping into the mix, the price tag is going to rise quickly. That’s why I’m looking at a situation in which coach Mike Zimmer & Co. attempt to bring back both Bridgewater and Keenum. With Bridgewater healthy and prepped to go through the entire offseason program, the former first-round pick will edge out Keenum in a daily camp battle for the starting spot.

Kevin Seifert, national NFL writer: Keenum. Part of the Vikings’ public ambivalence could be related to leverage. Declaring a quarterback your guy means you have to pay him that way. There is no doubt that Zimmer loves Bridgewater, but the Vikings know how rarely in their history they have gotten a performance like the one Keenum gave them in 2017. We have no information at the moment that would allow us to project Bridgewater as the superior quarterback.

Field Yates, NFL Insider: Cousins. The Vikings were publicly reticent throughout much of the 2017 regular season to fully and entirely commit to Keenum as the guy, which suggests to me that the team won’t overextend to keep him. Cousins, meanwhile, is the rare available quarterback who can shift the winds of a franchise, helping Minnesota — armed with the financial resources to acquire him — elevate to another level.

Mina Kimes, senior writer: Bridgewater. The Vikings have enough cap space to make a run at Cousins, but I think they’ll back off when his price tag reaches uncharted territory; Cousins is better than Keenum and Bridgewater, but he’s not that much better. It’s hard to forecast when Bridgewater will take Keenum’s job (I expect the team to keep both quarterbacks), but I still think Bridgewater is Minnesota’s long-term plan.

Dan Graziano, national NFL writer: Bridgewater. My projected scenario is one in which the Vikings bring back Keenum and Bridgewater, and Bridgewater eventually takes the job away from Keenum — either in a training camp competition or after Keenum struggles during the regular season. All of this, of course, assumes the Vikings don’t sign Cousins. If they break the bank for a quarterback, I’d change my answer to Cousins.

Aaron Schatz, editor-in-chief of Football Outsiders: Keenum. My guess is that other teams will look at Keenum and say, “Yes, he had one fantastic year, but what is his regression going to look like in our system?” The Vikings are the one team that can look at Keenum and know they have seen evidence he can play well for them. In the same system with the same teammates, there’s a better chance he can continue to play at 2017’s high level.

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Tampa Bay’s Ryan Jensen is the game’s best center — and one of its most relentless players

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NOBODY BESIDES A quarterback or a nose tackle has ever seen more of a center than the entire world saw of Tampa Bay’s Ryan Jensen in the NFC divisional-round playoff against New Orleans. His red hair flying outside his helmet like a contrail, Jensen bounced from defensive tackle to linebacker to safety and back to linebacker, truffle hunting for Saints, his 66 jersey just one 6 shy of biblical accuracy.

It was a remarkable show of physical endurance and sustained vitriol, sure to be repeated Sunday in the NFC Championship Game. It was so comprehensive it prompted rap impresario Rick Ross to publicly recommend that Tom Brady purchase Jensen “an Escalade, one of the new ones.” And while Jensen spread himself throughout the Saints’ defense, he reserved an exclusive strain of antipathy for linebacker Alex Anzalone, who found himself on his back underneath Jensen in all kinds of places, some likely — three yards downfield, more than once — and some unlikely — on his own sideline after being shoved across the field and then landed upon during a screen pass. Jensen’s targeting of Anzalone was so weirdly persistent it demanded some sort of backstory.

“No, nothing personal, none of that,” Jensen says, laughing. “I’ve been asked that a lot, though. Like, ‘What did he do, kick your dog?’ Nah, I just play nasty, old-school football, and all that is just business. I’ve just known nothing else. If you like it, you like it. If you don’t, you don’t. I’ve had defensive coordinators and players from other teams come up to me after games and say, ‘I hate you, but I love you.'”

Jensen fashions himself a 6-foot-4, 315-pound mosquito, once describing his style by telling his father, “I like to be the guy who annoys you just enough to make you want to take a swat at him.” He seeks the edge, nudging right up against it before raising his hands in a move that looks like an admittance of guilt but is intended to profess innocence. The style — blocking until the play is over and the defender slackens, and then giving one more push — was developed at Colorado State University-Pueblo, in a Division II program with an offensive line coach Jensen lovingly calls “a f—ing maniac.” Chris Symington taught his linemen to play “through the echo of the whistle,” and there are times when it appears Jensen is the only one on the field whose ears are tuned to hear its distant and fading notes.

Jensen’s operation manual is based on a traffic-signal approach: red means go back to the huddle, yellow means give them a little extra, and green, in the words of his father, means “unleash Captain A–hole.” He gained his first measure of notoriety three seasons ago when, as a member of the Ravens, he unleashed the green light on Dolphins linebacker Kiko Alonso after Alonso delivered a cheap shot to the head of Joe Flacco. (Followed by Ndamukong Suh, now a teammate in Tampa, taking a shot at Jensen.) But the defining moment of the Jensen oeuvre came far from the limelight, during his junior season at CSU-Pueblo, when he was flagged for a personal foul that seemed unwarranted. (There were many others, for the record, that were well and duly earned.) Symington demanded an explanation, and the official looked at him and said, “Excessive blocking.”

“Excessive blocking?” Symington says now, repeating it several times, the anger still fresh. “Whoever heard of excessive blocking?”

And while it might not be a penalty in the literal sense, it’s absolutely the best description of what Jensen does. In terms of accuracy and brevity, it’s damned near poetic. Watch him now, wilding his way through opposing secondaries, and you can see the world through the eyes of that very same official.

That’s the tricky thing about the edge. It doesn’t truly exist until it’s crossed.


AMONG SYMINGTON’S FIRST orders of business for incoming offensive linemen is this speech: “I coach college so I don’t have to deal with parents. If your parents ask me why you’re not playing, I’m going to tell them the truth: You’re soft, you’re nonathletic, you don’t play hard, and you’re not good enough.”

Dean and Jane Jensen are involved parents. They planned their lives around the sporting lives of their two sons, Ryan and his older brother Seth, a major recruit who went to Nebraska before transferring to CSU-Pueblo but never played at either because of shoulder and knee injuries. As kids, the boys were trained in taekwondo by Dean, who owned a martial-arts studio in Fort Morgan, Colorado, and reached the Olympic Trials in the discipline; both Seth and Ryan became black belts and youth national champions.

And so after Ryan listened to Symington’s views on parents, he called his father.

“Dad, you guys can’t talk to Coach Symo,” he said. “He doesn’t like parents.”

The Jensens attended the final fall scrimmage during Ryan’s freshman year, as they would attend every game in his four-year career at CSU-Pueblo, and when it was over Dean and Jane were walking out of the stadium through an end zone when Dean heard someone calling them. “Mr. and Mrs. Jensen! Mr. and Mrs. Jensen!” Dean looked over his shoulder and saw it was Symington. Dean tried to stay cool, pretend he didn’t hear, maybe slip out of the stadium like he’d been caught shoplifting. They walked a little faster, but Symington kept chasing and caught up. They could see Ryan watching from the other end of the field.

“We’ve been told not to talk to you,” Dean told Symington.

“It’s OK, I just want to thank you for sending your son here,” Symington said. “Your son has a chance to be really good, but don’t you dare tell him I said that.”

Symington walked away. Dean turned to Jane. “You saw that, right? When Ryan asks, you can say he initiated it?”

Predictably, after they met up with their son, Ryan said, “Dad, I told you: You’re not supposed to talk to the coaches.”

“Look, Ryan, he came up to me. I didn’t come up to him. You can ask your mom.”

Ryan thought about this for a moment, looked at his shoes and then sheepishly asked his father, “All right, but what did he say?”

Dean looked his son in the eyes. “Well, Red,” Dean said. “He told me if you plan on making this team, you’re going to have to work a lot harder than you are now.”


EARLY IN THE morning of March 20, 2020, Jensen was at his offseason home in Evergreen, Colorado, with his wife and two children when the phone rang. Bucs general manager Jason Licht’s name popped up on the caller ID, which caused Jensen to bounce out of bed, wondering what message might be urgent enough for a pre-7 a.m. call on a Friday.

“We just signed Brady,” Licht said, “and I wanted to give you a heads-up. He’s going to call you in 15 minutes.”

Jensen got back in bed to calm his heart and wait for Brady’s call. At the appointed minute, the phone buzzed: FaceTime. Jensen wasn’t expecting this, so he hustled out of bed and put on a shirt.

He congratulated Brady and welcomed him to the team. He estimates there were two minutes of pleasantries before Brady got to the point: a center’s butt sweat. He doesn’t like it, not even a little, and through the years he has developed a system to combat it.

“Yeah, the first couple of minutes was just, ‘Hey, where do you live in Tampa?'” Jensen says, “and then it was right to 20 minutes of ‘We’re going to shove a towel down your ass and put powder everywhere.’ Well … OK. I guess you don’t get to be as good as he is for that long without some quirks.”


JENSEN IS THE NFL’s highest-paid center, in the third year of a four-year, $42 million contract, and it still doesn’t seem real. When he received the contract offer, he sent his father a text: DAD CALL ME NOW. Dean, alarmed, called and asked, “Hey, Red. What’s going on?” Ryan started crying, eventually getting around to spitting out the basics in between sobs.

“Forty-two million and 22 guaranteed for four years,” he said. “That’s what they’re giving me to play this stupid game.”

Every NFL player has an origin story, some great overcoming that has led to a big moment. At the risk of naivete, Jensen’s seems less plausible than most. He started at tackle as a freshman at Pueblo carrying 230 pounds and zero aspirations for an NFL career. (“All I had was effort and attitude,” he says. “I had to play nasty and through the whistle just to survive.”) In fact, the Jensen brothers had major plans for their future: Seth was supposed to be the rich professional football player, and the two of them would open a string of barbecue restaurants called Chickie Red’s.

“Life has a sense of humor,” says Seth, a Pueblo police officer. “I didn’t think where we are today was what was going to happen. But when those doors closed for me, they opened for him.”

During his sophomore year in college, Ryan wrote “HDTM” on his wrist tape on game days. The first time he wore it, he cut the tape after the game and handed it to Seth. “What the hell is this?” Seth asked. “His dream through me,” Ryan answered.

“I gave him s— at the time,” Seth says, “but I went home and bawled my eyes out.”

Ryan kept growing, and the next season an NFL scout came to campus to watch a quarterback, and Jensen was in the study lounge in the football facility when the scout asked him if he could help him reboot the film system.

Jensen stood up, and the scout asked, “Wait a minute — are you 66?”

“Yeah.”

“Put your feet shoulder-width apart, squat down and raise your hands over your head.”

This is weird, Jensen thought, but OK.

When that exercise was complete, the scout said, “Keep playing the way you’re playing and with your size, you’ll get a camp invite.”

Jensen asked Symington about it, and his coach said, “He’s not wrong.”

Symington knew of what he spoke: He coached former Packers offensive tackle T.J. Lang at Eastern Michigan, and there’s an 8-by-10 photo of Lang in uniform hanging in Symington’s office. The inscription reads, “Symo — thanks for teaching me to f— people up.”

Jensen treated that photo like a holy relic, and by the time he was a junior he worked up the nerve to ask Symo, “How do I get one of those?”

Symington had been waiting for this. He told Jensen to sell his dirt bike, a favorite but risky hobby, quit his summer job as a roofer for his uncle, and break up with his girlfriend. Jensen quit the job to dedicate the summer to working out, and got $4,500 for the dirt bike — “my most valuable possession,” he says — to help with room and board. (He and his girlfriend, however, stayed together through his senior season.)

Even after all that, though, Symington knew Jensen had to give the scouts a reason to care. “They don’t want to come all the way out here and work your ass out,” he told Jensen. “You have to make it impossible for them not to. You’ve got to be different. Play through the edge, wherever that edge is.”

Flags trailed in his wake. He got thrown out of a game for punching someone during a PAT. Opponents railed against his style, charging Symington with teaching dirty play. The NCAA called the program and threatened a suspension if Jensen — and, by inference, Symington — didn’t exercise more self-control.

“It got to the point where every play I was worried I’d see a flag coming out,” Symington says. “So we got together and figured out a strategy: How can we get the other guy to get the flag?” Symington says. “We worked it out: irritate, frustrate and dominate.”

(The edge exists in life, too, out there on the horizon, waiting to be crossed. Jensen is self-deprecating and mild-mannered, by all accounts a stand-up citizen and devoted father/husband, and it’s only fair to point out he’s had just one unnecessary-roughness penalty in the past two seasons. “I’ve always been able to go back to normal-person behavior when football is over,” he says. “Having our own martial arts studio in a small town helped — we couldn’t be out fighting in the streets.”)

Jensen was drafted by the Ravens in the sixth round in 2013. And so now, as Symo talks fondly of eye-gouging and index fingers to the Adam’s apple and “always having a presence around the pile,” there are two photos on the wall. Jensen’s hangs just below Lang’s, same 8-by-10, exact same inscription.



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Why Chiefs’ Patrick Mahomes is the premier practitioner of the free play

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KANSAS CITY, Mo. — Standing in the shotgun position late in the first half of Sunday’s divisional playoff game, Kansas City Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes used his gravelly voice to draw Cleveland Browns defensive end Myles Garrett offside with a hard count. The free play gave Mahomes free rein to throw a 16-yard pass to Tyreek Hill with seconds remaining in the half, setting up a field goal that put the Chiefs ahead 19-3.

It wasn’t an anomaly, just the latest example of Mahomes luring an opponent over the line with his cadence and then making a play for the Chiefs. Since Mahomes became Kansas City’s starter in 2018, he leads the NFL with 18 completions after drawing an opponent offside.

No other NFL quarterback has more than seven such completions during that time.

Mahomes’ status for Sunday’s AFC Championship Game against the Buffalo Bills (6:40 p.m. ET, CBS) was unclear most of the week, but Friday the quarterback said he had cleared concussion protocol and will play. Mahomes was placed into the protocol following a hit later in the game against the Browns, but he took the majority of snaps for the Chiefs in practice this week. Coach Andy Reid said Mahomes moved around well in practice, and offensive coordinator Eric Bieniemy said “he’s been great in meetings.” With Mahomes saying he’s ready, the Bills must be on their guard if the QB is given a free chance.

“He’s got a good feel for it,” Reid said of Mahomes on free plays. “… We have full trust in him to make the decision as he goes forward to take the shot. He’s normally pretty accurate with what he does with it and where he goes with it. So he doesn’t just say, ‘I’m going to take the deepest man and just sling it to him.’ He’ll normally work his way through it and try to find the open guy. So you either get the five-yard penalty or the big gain and/or touchdown.”

At age 25, Mahomes appears to have mastered the art of the free play. He has 401 yards and two touchdowns on those 18 passes for a healthy 22.3-yard average.

The next-best quarterback in terms of free-play completions is Dak Prescott of the Dallas Cowboys, who has seven completions on such throws in the past three seasons. Long considered the master of the free play, Aaron Rodgers of the Green Bay Packers has five during that span. But going back to 2008, Rodgers has 33 completions with 14 touchdowns when he has nothing to lose.

“He does a tremendous job,” Mahomes said of Rodgers. “He can change plays, he can use the hard count, he can do whatever it is pre-snap. Obviously, he’s super talented and can make a lot of plays happen. He’s particularly good at using stuff like that with 12 [defenders] on the field or the hard counts to get free plays.”

It isn’t a skill acquired overnight. Mahomes started working on this part of his game at Whitehouse High School in Texas and continued through college at Texas Tech. He completed only two passes on free plays in college, though one went for a 31-yard touchdown in a bowl game against LSU.

“It’s not only me,” Mahomes said. “The whole offense has to be on the same page of running the routes at the right depths, doing the right stuff and staying onside when we’re using those hard counts.

“I try to use cadence as much as possible. I mean quick cadence, hard counts, whatever it is, just to get an advantage in any single way, and the offensive line does a great job of sitting in there, really paying attention, and we work on it throughout the week.”

Mahomes’ most recent touchdown pass on a free play came in Week 13 against the Broncos. Knowing an interception would be reversed by the penalty, Mahomes threw off his back foot and between two defenders, but the pass ended up with Travis Kelce for 20 yards and the go-ahead touchdown late in the third quarter.

“There’s typically one, maybe two home run shots if you get somebody to jump offsides on a deep pass,” Kelce said. “At the same time, if we don’t have a deep pass, there’s still a little bit of wiggle room to try to make a play happen.”

Mahomes alters how he goes through his reads once he has drawn an opponent offside. He immediately looks for the receiver running the deepest route. He threw a 46-yard touchdown pass to Hill this way last season against the Houston Texans.

If that type of play isn’t available, Mahomes works his way down the field. His coaches like to see it, but they also sound words of caution.

“We’re always reminding Pat, ‘Let’s make sure now that we complete it,'” Bieniemy said. “We don’t want to give [the opposing defense] a gift in case it’s not on the opponent.”

Added quarterbacks coach Mike Kafka: “There’s a time and a place for getting the ball down the field and [a time and a place for] taking what they give you and getting the easy completion [or] a quick five yards.”

The Chiefs, though, see too much potential benefit to ask Mahomes to change his ways. His ability to draw defenders offside and then get a big play is something for all opponents to consider.

“This is a great quarterback,” Miami coach Brian Flores said last month before the Dolphins faced the Chiefs. “You can put him up there with the other guys you’ve seen do something similar — the Aaron Rodgers, the Mannings, the Bradys. He’s an elite quarterback. I think it goes without saying.

“If you make a mistake, he’s going to make you pay for it.”



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After 13-year playoff drought, Bucs carry hopes of their last NFC championship team – Tampa Bay Buccaneers Blog

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TAMPA, Fla. — This Sunday, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers return to the NFC Championship Game for the first time in 18 years when they play the Green Bay Packers at Lambeau Field (3:05 p.m. ET, Fox), and nobody is more excited about it than the 2002 Buccaneers who came before them and were the last Tampa Bay team to get there.

Those Buccaneers defeated the Philadelphia Eagles 27-10 to win the franchise’s first and only NFC championship en route to a 48-21 Super Bowl XXXVII victory in San Diego. They watched from afar as this season’s team first reached the playoffs for the first time in 13 years and then last week defeated the New Orleans Saints 30-20 in the NFC divisional-round game.

Hall of Fame linebacker Derrick Brooks beamed with pride as Devin White notched an interception and a fumble recovery. He then texted former teammate Shelton Quarles, who is now the Bucs’ director of football operations, with, “One more! One more!” Quarles got the same text from former defensive tackle Anthony “Booger” McFarland.

“The memories started to flow,” said Brooks, who’s serving as the co-chairman of the Super Bowl LV Tampa host committee. “Just excited that they’ve earned the right to be in this position. I really, really can’t wait to see them play and look forward to them making history.”

While former quarterback Brad Johnson is ecstatic over the way Tom Brady is playing, former Bucs fullback Mike Alstott is gushing over the running game.

“I’m loving it. I’m digging [it],” Alstott said. “That one-two punch with [Leonard] Fournette and [Ronald] Jones — they’re running hard, they complement each other … . And then that wide receiver corps is loaded. … It’s just a good time for the Bucs right now.”

Brooks added, “We’ve all waited a long time to see this.”

‘They were screaming at us, talking about our moms’

Similar to this season’s Bucs, who will face wintry conditions at Lambeau Field — which currently call for a high of 28 degrees, a low of 12 and a 40% chance of snow — the 2002 Bucs had to battle frigid temperatures in the 20s in Philadelphia. They became the first and only Buccaneers team to win a game in temperatures at or below freezing, and the first Buccaneers team to win a playoff game on the road.

Even more daunting, though, was the task of knocking off a No. 1-seeded, Andy Reid-coached team that featured 10 Pro Bowlers, including quarterback Donovan McNabb. The Eagles had beaten Tampa Bay four consecutive times in the past three years, including in the playoffs in 2000 and 2001.

“For us, it was kind of a nemesis with Philadelphia,” said Johnson, who had been sacked five times in the teams’ previous meeting and suffered cracked ribs. “You almost felt that was our Super Bowl.”

Former running back Michael Pittman remembers being in a hostile environment from the time the team’s buses arrived. The Bucs were forced to stay in the same hotel as an Eagles pep rally.

“Everyone was flipping us off. Little kids on their parents’ shoulder flipping us off,” Pittman said. “They were screaming at us, talking about our moms, our wives … but we had one agenda. We wanted to win that game.”

They watched as the Eagles prepared a special Super Bowl send-off party during their Saturday walk-through.

“They had a big banner at the very top. I’ll never forget,” Quarles said. “It [read], ‘The view of San Diego looks great from here.’ And I’m like, ‘They think they’ve already won this game.'”

‘Triple Left, 83 Double Smash, X Option’

With just under 2 minutes remaining in the first quarter, the Bucs trailed 7-3, with only 69 total yards of offense. Johnson had already thrown an interception. But on third down, he found wide receiver Joe Jurevicius on a 71-yard catch-and-run that completely changed the game’s momentum.

“Triple Left, 83 Double Smash, X Option,” said Johnson, describing a play with two corner routes and two flat routes, with Jurevicius lining up inside. The idea was to leave Jurevicius one-on-one against linebacker Barry Gardner.

Johnson almost audibled out of it.

Five days earlier, on Jan. 14, Jurevicius’ wife, Meagan, had given birth to their first child, Michael William. Born one month premature, he was diagnosed with sialidosis, a rare metabolic disorder that impacts cell function. Doctors had given him just a 2% chance to survive even two days.

Jurevicius had missed the entire week of practice and the walk-through as he stood vigil with his wife and newborn. Yet he joined the team late in Philadelphia, stunning teammates when he said, “Hey, my family wants me to play.”

Brooks told him, “Hey man, we’ve got your back.”

Jurevicius froze out Gardner with a stutter step. He then outran him and Carlos Emmons before Brian Dawkins brought him down at the Philadelphia 5-yard line.

“It was well documented what they were going through that entire week,” Brooks said. “For him to be the one to step up in that moment and make really, a game-changing play at that time — it’s one of those moments where, ‘Hey, the stars are lining up for us.’”

Two plays later, Alstott barreled into the end zone to grab a 10-7 lead. Jurevicius would have just one catch that day, but it was, in many ways, the defining moment of his career, and the game.

“I’m not taking anything away from anybody, but I think it was the most important play of the game,” Johnson said.

Michael William Jurevicius fought for his life for 70 days. He died March 24.

‘Veterans Stadium never sounded so good to me’

The Bucs led the Eagles 20-10 with 3:27 left in the fourth quarter but still needed to close out the game.

That’s when cornerback Ronde Barber faked a blitz and baited McNabb into throwing a slant pass intended for receiver Antonio Freeman. Barber jumped the route, returning the pick 92 yards for a touchdown.

“I was right beside him running down the field and looking at their sideline, extremely quiet,” said Brooks, who considers it the greatest play in team history. “Veterans Stadium never sounded so good to me. Because there was dead silence! It sounded so sweet because it was dead silence, of disbelief.”

“Everybody was jumping on the sideline,” Pittman said. “I was just looking for the guy, whoever had the NFC championship hats. I was like, ‘It’s over, baby! Let me go get my hat!’”

“You don’t get many moments like that, to celebrate like that,” Johnson said. “You almost felt like that was the Super Bowl than it was the actual real Super Bowl, because of how much emotion went into it.”

Creating their own legacy

The Bucs are a different team today. The 2002 Bucs had a first-round bye and didn’t have to go on the road until that game in Philly. This season’s team is led by Brady, who has won six Super Bowls already. These Bucs entered the postseason as a wild-card team and a fifth seed, needing to win at Washington and at New Orleans just to get here.

Brady emphasized that mental toughness would be a necessity given the elements.

“We’re not going up there thinking about how cold it is,” Quarles said. “We’re not playing the cold. We’re playing the Packers.”

But the pain from every injury tends to be magnified in the cold, as the 2002 Bucs were well aware. Johnson was still recovering from a lower back injury. Pittman had played nearly the entire season with a high ankle sprain.

“It’s real. But the ability to ‘lock in’ is key,” Johnson said.

Alstott has a remedy for the chilly temperatures: the chicken broth at Lambeau Field, which he developed an affinity for while playing in the old NFC Central.

“They have the best chicken broth ever,” Alstott said. “Before the game, after the game, at halftime — they have the best chicken broth. I encourage them to drink that.”

His best advice? Make every play count, enjoy it and stay in the moment.

“It’s the biggest game of your life,” Alstott said. “At the time that they’re in in their career[s] — it doesn’t matter if you’ve been to 10 Super Bowls or none — it’s the biggest game because it’s the next game. And you have an unbelievable opportunity that’s never been done, to play in a Super Bowl game at your home stadium.”

‘We don’t play that game this week’

Coach Bruce Arians cautioned his players about looking ahead, even though they can see from their practice field the transformation of Raymond James Stadium with Super Bowl LV signage over the past two weeks, something team captain Lavonte David called “surreal.”

“We don’t play that game this week,” Arians told them. “We play the Packers in the NFC Championship Game. If you start thinking about the Super Bowl, you get beat and [will] be packing your bags on Monday.”

“I love Bruce and how forward he is. I love it. What’s wrong with it? It’s called the truth, right?” Alstott said.

Arians has gotten his share of well-wishes from former players. So has David. But they can’t get swept up in nostalgia. They’ll leave that to the ones who came before them, who can now enjoy watching a new generation of players following in their footsteps.

“When the Bucs win, they win,” Arians said. “[I am] really, really proud of the heritage they left. But this is about making names for ourselves now.

“I’m sure they’re going to enjoy it.”

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