Two hours before his teammates were due to check into their hotel on the eve of last Saturday's NFC wild-card playoff against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Philadelphia Eagles strong safety Damon Moore was killing time. Passing an open conference-room door at the hotel, Moore was surprised to hear the whirring and clicking of a video machine. Poking his head inside, he found cornerback Troy Vincent, shoes off, lost in the footage rolling before him. Moore attempted small talk, until Vincent began ticking off numerous habits of Bucs wideout Keyshawn Johnson. Stunned, Moore settled in for 90 minutes of study.
"He'd already been there for an hour, so how could I not stay?" Moore recalled minutes after the Eagles' emphatic 31-9 victory sent them into this Saturday's divisional playoff against the Chicago Bears. "The things he told me—how Keyshawn likes to run a curl route here or a fly route there-made all the difference. That's the way it is with our secondary, our defense. Troy works hard, so we do the same."
Still, even after a regular season in which it gave up the second-fewest points in the league, Philadelphia wasn't expected to be so dominant, given the game's high stakes. Hours before the Bucs flew to Philly last Friday, the St. Petersburg Times reported that Tampa Bay coach Tony Dungy, under fire throughout a 9-7 year, would be dismissed and replaced by Bill Parcells if his team did not advance at least to the NFC Championship Game. Several players expressed outrage at owner Malcolm Glazer's failure to offer the slightest vote of confidence to the classy Dungy and vowed that they would be playing for their coach's job.
If so, they didn't do Dungy any favors. Tampa Bay's two-pronged running attack of Mike Alstott and Warrick Dunn gained only 61 yards on 23 carries against a banged-up front four that was thought to be vulnerable against the run. While Eagles quarterback Donovan McNabb was, by turns, efficient and electrifying (16 of 25,194 yards, two touchdowns, plus four rushes for 57 yards), his counterpart, Brad Johnson, threw four interceptions. Two were picked off by Moore, and one each by Vincent and free safety Brian Dawkins, both Pro Bowl selections. When, with 2:08 left, Moore returned his second interception 59 yards for the Eagles' final score, Tampa Bay's season ended for the second straight year with a wild-card loss in Philly.
An angry, sobbing Keyshawn Johnson lashed out. "We've got a bunch of guys who are all bark and no bite. We can't have that s—anymore," he said. "If Dungy's the coach next year, he'd better get some f——— players in here who are going to play for him and not just run their mouths. Because the guy [Parcells, Johnson's former coach with the New York Jets] they're talking about coming in, he ain't going to put up with this s—-. Period." Late on Monday, Tampa Bay fired Dungy.
A lot of Keyshawn's frustration came from being held to three catches by a secondary that is among the NFL's finest. Dawkins, Vincent and cornerback Bobby Taylor have been together for six seasons and, along with three-year vet Moore, are major contributors in defensive coordinator Jim Johnson's blitz-heavy schemes. It's a system that relies heavily on Dawkins, whose ferocious hits belie his 5'10", 190-pound frame and whose superior cover skills are obscured by his frequent blitzing. "He's the best safety I've ever been around," says Jim Johnson, an NFL assistant since 1986. "He lets me do things I otherwise couldn't do."
Despite his burgeoning reputation Dawkins sees room for improvement. "I missed three interceptions in our first four games—it was terrible," he says. The most embarrassing miss came on Sept. 30 against the Dallas Cowboys, when he allowed a sure interception to slip through his hands and bounce off his helmet, into the waiting arms of cornerback Al Harris. "We watched it over and over in the film room," says Dawkins, who finished the regular season with two interceptions, "and the guys couldn't stop laughing."
The obvious camaraderie among members of the secondary is inspired by Vincent, a three-time Pro Bowl selection and videotape junkie, who offers, among other things, advice for tweaking coverage schemes, financial tips and spiritual guidance to the team's many fellow Christians. "Troy told me early this week that one way to beat Tampa Bay's defensive backs was to sell them hard on the outside routes, then get inside quickly and release," said Eagles wideout James Thrash, whose 21-yard catch over the middle midway through the third quarter set up a 25-yard scoring run by Correll Buckhalter that put Philadelphia up 24-9. "He always shares stuff like that."
Dawkins's acrobatic interception of a Brad Johnson duck late in the game was impressive, but Vincent provided the game's two signature plays. The first came with 11 seconds to go in the first half, when Keyshawn Johnson found a soft spot in the Philadelphia zone, broke a tackle and appeared to be on his way to scoring a touchdown that would have cut the Eagles' lead to 17-13. Instead, Vincent made the stop at the 12, and Tampa Bay settled for a field goal. The second play was a product of Vincent's pregame study. Recognizing Jacquez Green's post-corner route, he made an over-the-shoulder interception in the end zone with 4:02 left in the third quarter, snuffing Tampa Bay's last meaningful scoring threat.
"It's easy to be average," a weary Vincent said late on Saturday in his Yardley, Pa., home. "Anybody can do just enough. It's the guys who go in early, leave late and dedicate themselves to one another who make a difference in this game."