- The Washington Times - Tuesday, January 21, 2003

SAN DIEGO Tampa Bay Buccaneers quarterback Brad Johnson considers old friend Rich Gannon a "ninja warrior." The way Johnson tells it, the Oakland quarterback is almost intuitive in running the Raiders' offense, picking and hitting targets like Neo spinning between bullets in "The Matrix."

"That's where you want to get to," Johnson said. "When I watched a guy like Rich Gannon in his first year or so in Oakland, they were excelling, they were making plays, but now he's at another level in the fourth and fifth year in that system."

Dialed in on a similarly ethereal plane is the Bucs' defense. Supposedly unstoppable run/pass threats like Michael Vick are contained. Ball carriers are in daylight one second and on their rear ends the next. Only rarely does an opposing player reach the end zone, and quite frequently the unit itself will pick up a score.

Oakland has Gannon as the NFL's MVP. Tampa Bay has linebacker Derrick Brooks as the league's defensive player of the year. Both sides attack with blinding speed and endless creativity. Both have supplementary stars. And both have the statistics to certify their excellence.

In short, Sunday's matchup between the Raiders' No.1 offense and the Bucs' No.1 defense in Super Bowl XXXVII the first battle of top-ranked units in the championship game is shaping up as one for the ages.

"We look forward to the challenge," Raiders running back Charlie Garner said. "We know going in they have a great defense, but every week we see a lot of teams at their best. We look forward to going down there, fighting Tampa and putting pressure on them."

Gannon was at his finest in Sunday's AFC Championship game win over the Tennessee Titans, hitting his first 12 passes, throwing for three touchdowns, running for another and finishing with a rating of 114.5.

The Bucs, meanwhile, dismantled Philadelphia and similarly lauded quarterback Donovan McNabb in the NFC title game. The Eagles rushed for just 80 yards and turned the ball over three times, twice in Bucs territory and a third time in a game-sealing, 92-yard interception return by cornerback Ronde Barber.

"We're good, and I'm not afraid to say it," Barber said.

Indeed, Tampa Bay is threatening to move beyond greatness and into the realm of historic. The Bucs are one of just seven teams since the advent of the 16-game schedule to give up less than 200 points in a regular season, and from that group only the 1978 Pittsburgh Steelers, 1985 Chicago Bears and 2000 Baltimore Ravens also advanced to the Super Bowl.

Each, incidentally, won the big game. Now Tampa Bay, after becoming the first defense to lead the league in yards, points and interceptions since the '85 Bears, is looking to cement its place in NFL annals by following suit.

"[Winning the Super Bowl] would put us in the company of the Doomsday Defense [of the Dallas Cowboys in the mid-1970s], the Steel Curtain [of the late-1970s Steelers] and the Ravens," defensive tackle Warren Sapp said. "You don't become a household name until you win a championship."

Oakland's offense isn't quite as lofty all time, but it did lead the NFL with 389.8 yards a game in a good year for offenses. Gannon's yardage total (4,689), meanwhile, tied for the sixth best in NFL history.

Regardless, the unit clearly is championship-caliber with Gannon throwing to some of history's best wide receivers (Jerry Rice and Tim Brown), young speed receiver Jerry Porter stretching the field and Garner providing an always-reliable underneath target.

"They're a juggernaut on offense," Titans tight end Frank Wycheck said. "I don't think our defense has anything to hang their head about. They are just very powerful, very potent and very tough to contain."

Underlying those attributes is Oakland's ability to attack relentlessly and from all angles. In true West Coast fashion, short, high-percentage passes are turned into long gains. But the Raiders have evolved into something beyond the West Coast, becoming so proficient with the pass that the run is almost unnecessary.

Against Tennessee, Oakland called just one run through the first three quarters, getting more than enough production out of Gannon's scrambles and dump-offs to Garner. The way Brown described it, Oakland actually wanted Tennessee to pass-rush something you'll never hear an offensive player say.

"The game plan was to throw the ball, make these guys pass-rush and, hopefully, they will get tired," Brown said. "I think it pretty much worked to perfection."

Tampa Bay's unit is similarly impressive to watch. Sapp and end Simeon Rice get consistent penetration. Brooks is versatile enough to blitz, cover wide receivers and tackle sideline-to-sideline. Barber is a similar multiple threat. And safety John Lynch's combination of game knowledge, reaction speed and strength allow coordinator Monte Kiffin to take chances.

"When we worked against each other in the spring and in training camp," first-year coach Jon Gruden said, "I knew we had a defense that could win a Super Bowl."

This week, in more ways than one, will be the ultimate test. Oakland, with its veritable martial-arts master at quarterback, has similar designs.

"If we go out there and execute and keep teams off-balance," Garner said, "I think we can score on anybody."

Staff writer David Elfin contributed to this report.


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