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Swashbuckling on gridiron

Posted: Monday, January 20, 2003

SAN DIEGO -- A Super Bowl of the high seas: the Tampa Bay Buccaneers vs. the Oakland Raiders.

All that will be missing is the pirate ship.

Next weekend at Qualcomm Stadium, Tampa Bay coach Jon Gruden, who left the Raiders this season, bringing draft picks and millions of dollars to Oakland in exchange, meets his former team.

''I've got a lot of respect for where I come from,'' Gruden said. ''I do have some close relationships with some of those players.''

His former boss, Al Davis, has been a thorn for the NFL for nearly three decades. Is Paul Tagliabue looking forward to the possibility of handing the Vince Lombardi Trophy to Davis?

And the Raiders have the league's No. 1 offense. Guess who has the top defense?

How delicious.

Starting with Gruden vs. his buddies out west.

''We thought this could happen,'' said wide receiver Tim Brown, the longest-tenured Raider. ''For it to come to fruition, you really can't dream about it. We're going to go get Jon.''

While the Buccaneers (14-4) coldly tore apart the Eagles 27-10 in frigid Philadelphia, the Raiders (13-5) rode the passing and running of Rich Gannon past Tennessee 41-24.

Gruden, remember, first brought the journeyman Gannon to Oakland. And now Gannon -- the 2002 NFL MVP -- stands in his way.

''We have some unfinished business,'' Gannon said. ''We'll go down and play our best game next week.''

The Raiders opened as a 3 1/2-point favorite. Oakland and Tampa Bay have not played since 1999, when the Raiders romped 45-0.

This will be the first Super Bowl for the Bucs, while the Raiders have not been there since winning their third NFL title after the 1983 season.

''We're a confident bunch and knew what we had to do to get it done,'' Bucs All-Pro defensive tackle Warren Sapp said. ''We didn't have to talk about it, just let the pads do the talking.''

The NFC winners have been one of the NFL's worst franchises since their inception, when the Buccaneers went 0-14 in 1976, then lost the first 12 games the next season. At one point, from 1983-96, the Bucs had no winning seasons and lost at least 10 games in 13 of 14 years.

Less than a minute into the NFC title game, it looked like the sad-sack Bucs had returned as they fell behind 7-0. From there on, however, Tampa Bay played like champions.

Now the Bucs get a chance to be NFL champions, taking on the high-powered Raiders, who survived 14 penalties for 127 yards by getting three touchdown passes and a TD run from Gannon.

Tampa Bay used its usual approach of aggressive defense and enough timely offense to keep Philadelphia off-balance all day. Oakland got big plays from its cast of veterans, from Gannon to Brown to Jerry Rice to Bill Romanowski to Rod Woodson.

The Bucs had a plus-14 turnover differential this season, and probably have more playmakers on defense than offense. In ranking first against the pass and in overall defense, the Bucs had a league-high 31 interceptions. Defensive player of the year Derrick Brooks had four runbacks for touchdowns this season, but cornerback Ronde Barber was Sunday's star.

''It was a play that I have to make,'' Barber said after he iced the win with a 92-yard interception with 3:12 remaining. ''I'd be kicking myself for the next five weeks if I don't make that interception. The touchdown was a bonus for it.

''We've got something bigger we are looking for. We are on a path of destiny and we don't want to mess it up.''

The Raiders messed up enough times to keep matters close against the Titans. But Tennessee had two critical fumbles and a botched punt that were more costly, and the Raiders never stopped being aggressive -- on Sunday or any time this season.

''We fought hard all year long, kept fighting,'' Rice said. ''We lost four games and we fought through it. And now we are going to the Super Bowl.''

If the Bucs aren't as generous as the Titans, Oakland could have a difficult time finding the end zone. However, Tampa hasn't faced as versatile an offense as Oakland's all season.

And the Raiders are likely to have more fans on hand, given the proximity of both teams' homes.

''One more to go,'' said Sapp. ''We ain't going for no vacation.''

Neither is Oakland.



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