TAMPA, Fla. -- Warren Sapp will never forget walking off the field after losing to Philadelphia in the playoffs the past two years. He can't imagine experiencing that pain again.
The Tampa Bay Buccaneers' loquacious defensive tackle struggled to find the words to explain the emptiness. He is convinced Sunday's NFC championship game against the Eagles will have a happier ending.
''Why? The only thing I can say that will make any sense to anybody is: this team,'' Sapp said. ''You can take each guy and show how it's a little bit better.''
He talked about how new coach Jon Gruden had motivated players who became complacent under Tony Dungy, the changes Gruden made in an improved offense and the consistency of the NFL's top defense.
Then Sapp detailed how losing four straight times to the Eagles has strengthened Tampa Bay's resolve to get to the Super Bowl.
''The thing about it is, other teams have found a way to beat the Eagles. The Colts manhandled them. The Giants manhandled them nine out of 10 times they played, and Jacksonville handled them right before we went and played them'' in October, Sapp said.
''It's not like '99, when we played the Rams in the NFC championship game and nobody had really handled them, so there was no way the Bucs could do it with that rinky dink offense and bend-but-don't-break defense. That's not what we're talking about now. We're talking about a team that's just badder than us, a bully that just beats us up and scares us at the very sight of them.''
Sapp was being sarcastic, although there is some truth to that description of the Eagles.
Philadelphia has dominated the Bucs physically in their four meetings since 2000, and the four-time All-Pro defensive lineman is sensitive to criticism that he and the rest of Tampa Bay's smallish, speedy defense can't match up against smash-mouth opponents like the Eagles.
''It is what it is. And until we whip them, that will be the reality. Because if you write it long enough, people will believe it,'' Sapp said. ''It been written enough. It's been written four times in a row -- the last four times we've seen this team.''
The Eagles outscored the Bucs 52-12 in the playoffs the past two years, and Tampa Bay has failed to score an offensive touchdown in their last three games at the Vet. Philadelphia also won the teams' regular season meeting 20-10 on Oct. 20.
Eagles cornerback Troy Vincent compared the Bucs' frustration to the problems Philadelphia had against the Giants from 1997-00.
''When I first came to Philly, we had their number. We actually used to beat the Giants,'' Vincent said. ''For a few years, they ran off about nine straight on us. It got frustrating. ... I'm sure the Bucs are tired of hearing about the cold weather and then dropping three straight to us. I would be tired of hearing it.''
The Eagles are in the NFC title game for the second straight year. The Bucs are making their first appearance since 1999, when they lost 11-6 to eventual Super Bowl champion St. Louis.
The Rams beat Philadelphia 29-24 in last year's conference championship game.
''We're just going to come out there and hit each other in the mouth. They know what we're coming with, we know what they're coming with, and the better team is going to win,'' Eagles linebacker Carlos Emmons said. ''I feel like we're that team.''
Sapp shook his head slowly, recounting how he never thought it would take Tampa Bay three years to get back to this stage. He said the Bucs were too ''young and dumb'' to fully understand the opportunity they had in 1999.
He vows they will not make the same mistake this time.
''We didn't go in with the mentality: 'Let's go take this.' That's what this team is about now,'' Sapp said.
''That's what this game is all about -- having a chance to redeem yourself and get back at a ballclub that you haven't handled well. Green Bay had three shots at Dallas, San Francisco had all those shots at Dallas those years. ... You have to get to that point and know what it takes to get over that hump.
''I think this team has that.''
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