SAN DIEGO — It looks like the perfect Super Bowl matchup: Oakland’s high-powered offense against Tampa Bay’s stingy defense.
For all the common denominators, from their swashbuckling logos to the coach they have shared, the most intriguing theme is sports’ age-old one. Can the prolific Raiders, led by the NFL’s most valuable player, overwhelm the Buccaneers, who have the league’s defensive player of the year?
For all of Oakland’s offensive playmakers, from Rich Gannon to Jerry Rice to Tim Brown to Charlie Garner, Tampa Bay can offer such defensive stalwarts as Derrick Brooks, Warren Sapp, John Lynch and Ronde Barber.
And for all of Jon Gruden’s success as coach of the Raiders, he never made the Super Bowl with them. He now has with the Bucs.
“We’ve got a tough team coming up, Tampa Bay,” said Jerry Rice, the NFL’s all-time leading receiver who already has won three rings with San Francisco. “And it’s going to be a little unusual facing Gruden. But this is an opportunity of a lifetime, and I am just looking forward to the challenge.”
The challenge for Oakland, which scored 71 points in two playoff victories, including a 41-24 decision over Tennessee on Sunday for the AFC title, is not just to move the ball against Tampa Bay, but also to find the end zone. The Bucs, who beat Philadelphia 27-10 for the NFC championship, yielded the fewest yards and the fewest points in the league.
The Raiders certainly have the weapons, from MVP Gannon, who threw for three touchdowns and ran for another against the Titans, to his bevy of receivers.
One of the best matchups next weekend will be Rice, Brown and rapidly burgeoning Jerry Porter vs. Barber, Lynch and the rest of the Bucs’ superb secondary.
“We’re good, and I’m not afraid to say it,” said Barber, whose 92-yard interception return with 3:12 remaining iced the win in Philadelphia.
So is Oakland, of course. The Raiders even seem oblivious to their lack of discipline — 14 penalties for 127 yards didn’t stop them Sunday.
“We were making a lot of dumb mistakes out there,” Oakland linebacker Eric Barton said. “Fortunately, we sucked it up and stopped it. That shows the character of this team.”
The Raiders, heading to their first Super Bowl in 19 years, ranked first in total offense and passing offense. The Bucs, going to their first Super Bowl, were No. 1 in total defense and pass defense. They had a league-high 31 interceptions, and defensive player of the year Brooks had four runbacks for touchdowns this season.
“We’re a confident bunch and knew what we had to do to get it done,” All-Pro defensive tackle Sapp said. “We didn’t have to talk about it, just let the pads do the talking.”
Before the pads collide at Qualcomm Stadium, both sides will be inundated with questions about Gruden. After guiding the Raiders for four seasons, he was “traded” to the Bucs, who had fired Tony Dungy last January, for four high draft picks and $8 million.
Replaced by his offensive coordinator, Bill Callahan, Gruden hardly was missed as Oakland opened its playbook further and scored 450 points this season. And he didn’t really put his offensive touch on the Bucs until these playoffs, in which they have outscored the Eagles and 49ers by 58-16.
“Certainly there’s some sensitivity there and some emotion to see Oakland play in the Super Bowl,” Gruden admitted. “I have not talked a lot about how I got here, but I respect where I came from. I know there’s some players that maybe don’t feel that, but I’m proud of my experience there and I have a lot of respect for the players there and what they may have done.”